'The Firbank Gold Strike'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, lovers and Deputy's in 1870's Red Flume, Arizona Territory, USA, become involved in a possible major gold strike.

Note:— Influenced by the 'Wolfville' stories of Alfred Henry Lewis.

Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author, and are wholly fictitious representations: the overall local geography may be questionable, too.

—O—

"Sheriff! Figure I'm gon'na need your help."

Arthur Sondquist was owner and operator of the Panjandrum Assay Office in Red Flume. This particular business having once seen much better days—years since when the local Silver Rush was at its height. Then he had been the busiest person in the thriving, and fast growing, mining hamlet of Red Flume; though now he simply worked part-time in a business long past its great days. But even with business on the edge of the abyss, on this sunny morning of June 187- in the Territory of Arizona, strange things may still happen.

"How so, Art?"

Charles Donaldson had been Sheriff in the now thriving town for as long as anyone cared to remember, so spoke from experience. Beside him, in his office on Main Street, were two of his most valuable Deputies, Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe, renowned as one of the great bear hunters of the Mid-West; and her constant companion Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, as fine a shootist, when pushed, as you could wish not to face-off in any argument where her .38 Smith and Wessons' might be involved.

"Got a fella come carousin', some rambunctious, in'ta my office an hour ago." Arthur stopping to take a deep breath before continuing his explanation. "Nat Hancock by name; sez he's a prospector over t'Firbank. Came in with a mighty heavy jute bag, filled with allsorts o'rubbish—"

"Fool's Gold?" Henrietta nodding to herself as she proposed this likely outcome.

"Waal, some, certin'; but amongst it all were two fair-sized nuggets—an' from all the tests I've been able to make on 'em, they seems straight-up solid high quality gold, is all."

A quiet pause enfolded the occupants of the small office as this information was processed in a variety of mental ways.

"You sure, Art?" Sally looking as doubtful as she sounded. "Pure gold nuggets? Pull the other one, surely?"

"How big are said nuggets?" Henrietta showing all her ingrained reserve in such matters. "Not piddlin' little needle-point items, I takes it?"

"What kind'a tests ya use, Art?" Sheriff keeping to the narrow clear path of Science.

Faced with an interrogation from three angles Arthur took time to refresh his inner being once again, drawing in some more deep breaths—he having run almost clear across town to reach the Sheriff's Office.

"Yep, more nor less pure gold, ma'am," He regaining the power of speech. "at least so far's my tests' show, anyways. Size, ma'am? Well, they sits in the palm of my hand, taking up all the available space, an' mighty heavy they is, too. Their weight, you see, bein' some relevant t'present circumstances. Tests, Sheriff? I used several; the nuggets' specific gravity's are approximately sixteen point seven—a very good initial pointer to pure, or at least very little alloyed, gold. Then I used the Mohs test—gold being far softer than iron pyrites. It, gold, won't scratch a plate of soft copper, but pyrites will. The nuggets passed that test, too. Final, I did the acid test, with nitric acid; the nuggets came through that too, they both not changing colour—pure, or near pure, gold, y'see."

The three official occupants of the office regarded each other, showing a variety of expressions, then Donaldson rose with dignity—like an old-time monarch rising from his throne—making a start for the office door.

"Looks like we-all ought'a take a gander at this here supposed gold racket, or whatever; lead the way, Art. Comin' gals?"

" 'course we're comin', Charlie!" Sally affronted at the mere suggestion they wouldn't. "Come on, lady, make a move, you're holdin' me back."

"Gawd!" From a harassed Henrietta, as they all stepped out onto the shaded sidewalk.

—O—

The small town, village really, of Firbank sat in the shadow of the rolling grass-topped Caryan Hills; the town making most of its profit from surrounding farms and ranches of mixed usage. Only half the size of Red Flume, forty miles to its east, Firbank had never attempted to force its presence on its neighbours in any unruly manner, and continued so on the morning that Henrietta and Sally, accompanied by Nat Hancock, rode into its small square.

"Now, remember, Nat," Sally giving their guest her orders as they all dismounted. "don't, fer any reason whatever, make any allusion to gold, nor silver, nor diamonds, or any other precious metals or stones, or whatnot, t'anyone at all. Got thet?"

"Yeah, I hear's ya, plain an' clear—Haa—rr-Spppch!" Spitting comprehensively in the dust at his steed's hooves Nat, being somewhere in his late fifties, face covered by an extensive beard that seemed determined to outdo the Amazon forests, was unhappy. "But where-all does I git t'enjoyin' the results o'my find, is all? I mean, I found the dam' gold, didn't I? Why shouldn't I shout it out t'one an' all—an' thereby go carousin' clean across the Territory with the bucket-loads o'double eagles I thereby legally clutches ter my chest?"

"Idiot!" Henrietta having nothing to do with such sloppy thinking. " 'cause it'd cause a dam' flood o'gold-hunters t'swamp the locality, is why. There'd be a Rush—bigger than '49—if'n the word got out; don't ya see thet?"

"An', anyway," Sally adjusting her hat as they strolled along the sidewalk. "you got your claim, at least I assumes so—"

"Sure have; made it with Sondquist, first thing after he approved my nuggets less'n a week since." Nat nodding determinedly. "If'n any cowpoke comes cavortin' round, argufyin' same I got the certificate t'prove my ownership, legal an' certin'."

"Thet' being all glory and sunshine fer you, Nat." Sally carrying on her diatribe regardless. "But, let the news filter out in'ta the local population and, afore ya can recite Mary Had A Little Lamb, prospectors an' hunters from every State in the Union, an' countries overseas, probable, will descend on this here little hamlet an' turn it in'ta a rip-roarin', undisciplined minin' camp o'the lowest order imaginable."

"You'd have yer head caved in, —some accidental, o'course, as a multitude o'paid witnesses'll testify—within a week, an' your claim taken over by some grifter or carpet-bagger who'll soak it fer every cent therein, then hightail it t'Boston t'live the high life fer evermore." Henrietta looking into the possible future with just as clear an eye as her partner. "You bein' long planted in an unmarked grave, the whiles."

"Yee-agh, thet ain't nice ter think on." Nat indeed doing just that, and not liking the result.

"So, keep yer trap shut at all points, is good advice." Sally grabbing the prospector's arm to make her words penetrate. "Don't tell anyone, anywhere, what's up. We're here ter investigate where yer claim' is, remember—before letting the Public in on the joyous occasion."

"But why?" Nat still in the dark.

"Because what you found, like Sondquist told us four days since, may yet be simply a placer, not a straight vein, at all." Henrietta giving the old prospector the facts of Life for the umpteenth time. "We' got'ta make sure you've hit a vein, a long-runnin' vein, an' not jest a placer hole—with a certin' amount of gold, sure, but only in thet one spot, an' which'll run out far afore ya reaches any amount o'thousands o'dollars profit."

"Leavin', fer all the incoming hunters gasping to head a new Rush, only a single muddy hole empty of anything other than mud—there bein' no more gold anywhere within fifty mile o'your single claim." Sally putting the tin-lid on the prospector's dreams of glory and riches beyond compute. "It being either the one or the other: the which it is being up to Harry, here, an' I t'discover, investigate, determine, an' final make a disposition on. Understand?"

The growling sound, emanating from somewhere within the old man's beard being taken as agreement by the ladies the trio, having long since dismounted, carried on walking; their destination being the town's Sheriff's Office a little further along the street.

"Waal, here we be." Henrietta standing outside the door of the Office. "Now, remember, Nat, Sal an' I'll lead the conversation. You need only butt in ter say yeah or naw, as the sity'atin demands, OK?"

"Yeah-yeah, I hear's ya."

—O—

Sheriff Trevor Harleston had been in charge of Law and the other thing in the small hamlet of Firbank for five years, during which length of service absolutely nothing of any interest or regard to outside spectators had occurred within the limits of his authority. Some might have termed the community a hick town, some a place of no concern; but it carried on bravely, ignoring such ill-natured allusions with calm superiority. So, having been informed of the reason for their visit by the two female Deputies, Harleston was in no way pleased at the glad tidings.

"Gold? G-d'd-m gold! Ya got'ta be kiddin' me!"

"Nah, it's true as beans, Sheriff." Henrietta trying to pour oil on stormy waters. "Nat, here's, the real McCoy. His nuggets has been assayed t'within an inch o'their lives, back to Red Flume—the answer bein' they're as kosher as—as—well, they is, no argufyin' allowed, is all."

"Sh-t!"

"No doubt, Sheriff." Sally nodding consolingly, as they all stood in his office. "But, all the same, gold's gold—an' what Nat's found is all-round certified as the real thing, from all angles."

"Jee-sus, ya know what this means?" Harleston envisaging the coming future, and the subsequent loss of the Easy Life. "It'll be confusion, twice confounded. Shootists, carpet-baggers, idiots thinkin' they're expert gold-diggers; grifters, thugs, horse-stealers, hoodlums, card-sharpers in droves; women of no account, bordello's in every street, saloons every second house, everywhere; shoot-'em-ups the order o'the day. Jee-sus!"

Henrietta and Sally watched the Sheriff as he contemplated the descent of his loved community from that of a quiet peaceful town to that of a rambunctious harbinger of the Hot Place.

"Sheriff, what Harry—"

"—canvas-tented districts shootin' up all round." Harleston still fixated on what was to come. "People diggin' holes across the landscape, like beavers gone mad. Flumes springin' up promiscus everywhere, shootin' water an' mud over every citizen's head as they goes about their business in the town. Jee-sus!"

"Sheriff, ya hearin' me?" Henrietta trying to bring the shocked man back to reality.

"What? What?"

"Sheriff, if'n ya don't want sich t'happen, listen ter me an' Sal, here." Henrietta, satisfied she had the lawman's attention, went on to expound her plan. "All what you're sayin' may well happen; but there's a fair chance y'can escape sich."

"How? Go on, tell me,—how?"

"Gim'me a chance, an' I will." Henrietta becoming a little browned-off with the excitable officer. "No need t'panic; not yet, awhiles, anyway. What Sal an' I are here t'do is discover whether Nat's find is a big placer, a little placer, a vein, a lode, or jist a small deposit on its lonesome."

"Oh, yeah?" Harleston clearly not impressed. "You two bein' high-class experts in same, no doubt?"

"I panned fer gold, some years back, yeah." Sally giving Harleston the benefit of her most powerful scowl. "I calls myself some of an expert, yeah."

"Me, too." Henrietta coming forward with her own experience in the matter. "Panned fer gold in the Blue Mountains—found same, too."

"Oh!"

"So," Sally administering the knock-out punch. "what we requires of you, Sheriff, is to keep stumm about the whole thing, till we returns from wherever it is Nat found the dam' nuggets, with our experienced decision on what the state of play is, therein. OK?"

"Jeez!"

—O—

The Caryan Hills ran north-west from Firbank a total of some twenty miles before running out in the sandy wastes; in width they were never more than five to six miles, always of a rolling grass-covered nature. This last point confusing Henrietta and Sally to some extent as they rode over the low range—it never having a peak more than two thousand feet high, easily accessible from any angle or side—with the old prospector, heading for the source of his wealth, at least in theory.

"This here ain't gold country, Nat." Henrietta first to voice the obvious criticism.

"What fer ya says thet, lady?"

" 'cause she's right, is why, ol' timer." Sally standing up for her partner, as the trio rode over the wide grass fields all round. "Ain't nuthin' here but grass, rabbits, an' falcons. Ya telling us you found those nuggets in this vicinity? I doubts same, I got'ta say."

This dual critical response riled the prospector every way imaginable.

"What's gold country, anyways?" He determined to stand his ground against all comers. "Yeah, I knows—rocky landscapes, with bare rocks in all directions, and craggy hills ya hav'ta mine in'ta t'find a vein or placer. But ya can get it—gold, I means,—in other localities, too. These here's grassy knolls, more nor less, I admits; but under the dam' grass is rock, an' in thet rock there's veins, an' those veins ain't copper nor iron nor anythin' similar—but schist an' especial quartz."

"So what?" Sally already developing long-term rider's butt, and not liking the resulting discomfort.

"Ya cain't no-ways git gold in quantity, without ya find it embedded in thick veins o'quartz, is what, leddy." Nat sniffing condescendingly. "Ya gets a vein o'quartz, say a foot thick, runnin' in'ta a hillside fer, oh, meb'be a hundred yards; out'ta thet quartz—say, a hundred ton o'same, ya gets meb'be five poun' avoirdupois o'the yeller stuff. Thet's rich pickin's ma'am. Well nigh e'nuff ter start another Forty-niner Rush, easy."

Henrietta here took up another detail which had been bothering her.

"Nat, those nuggets ya came in'ta Red Flume with, are nuggets; they ain't gold ya crushed out'ta a quartz vein. You'd need heavy equipment—crushers, rollers, flumes, separators, an' sich-like ter do thet. You ain't up fer thet kind'a outlay. So, where'd ya really find those nuggets? Not anywhere's round these parts, thet's certin."

The three rode on a further half mile, over the never-ending grass plains, before Nat took up the necessity of replying.

"Waal, perhaps I has bin some loquacious with the details, previous, I admits."

Sally, riding on her lover's left side, had heard enough.

"Nat, you're a pan-handler, is all." She leaning forward in her saddle to fix the story-teller with a cold beady eye. "You sieve streams fer particles o'gold; a month's work'd probable only bring in twenty dollars worth o'dust. So, where the f-ck'd ya find those dam' nuggets? An' this time make it the truth, or the buzzards'll be feastin' on yer remains the whiles Harry an' I returns ter Firbank in the not distant future."

Corralled without mercy in this manner Nat, after another minute's thought, came clean.

"OK-OK!" He rumpling the rim of his dusty hat with his gloved hand. "Ya both don't take prisoners, does yer?"

"No, we don't." Sally building up a fine head of pressure at being taken for an idiot. "So get on with it, an' it better be good, old 'un."

Harpooned like a whale, metaphorically speaking, Nat gave in and came clean.

"OK! Jeez, women!" Glancing over at his companions, and realising he had not started-off on the right lines, Nat back-tracked with speed. "Thet is, it's like this, leddies; I was pannin' fer gold in a stream not far off from here when I found the dam' nuggets. In the stream, large as life."

"Just loose?" Sally raising her eyebrows doubtfully, though her fellow riders couldn't see this under her wide-brimmed hat. "Lying in the bed, by theirsel's?"

"Yeah, jest thet, an' no more." Nat nodding in agreement. "But what I does say is—I knows this country; bin pannin' all over it fer the last three year. An' I knows, fer a fact, the only way those nuggets got where they was, is because they came from a placer some ways further up the stream, in the higher hills, where, undoubted, there's a unknown vein jes' restin' quiet waitin' fer someone t'find the dam' thing. An', leddies, I means' thet buster ter be me, no partners' accepted."

Faced with this level of self deception both Henrietta and Sally brought their mounts to a halt together; Nat riding on some distance before realising he was now a lone horseman in the wilderness, and stopping to look back in wonder at the women.

"Sal, ya heerd what I heerd, jes' now?"

"Sure did, lover."

"An' I takes it fer said, yer thinks the same of said gibberings as I does?"

"Dam' straight, lady."

"Which jes' leaves the manner of our exit from this nightmare."

Sally, her butt playing-up something awful at this moment, was in no two minds about what kind of justice to serve on the deranged prospector.

"I says we shoots the fool, buries him nondescriptly somewhere's aroun', an' rides back ter Red Flume, never mentionin' the id-yeet's name ever agin. Works fer me."

Henrietta, although clearly of the same mode of thought regarding the character now gazing back at them from a safe distance, nonetheless had doubts.

"Some years back I'd'a agreed with yer wholehearted, an' happily fired the first shot, too." She glancing at her paramour with a sad mien as she came to the crux of her hesitation. "But, seein' we're now wholly accredited Deputies of Sheriff Charles Donaldson an' warranted ter uphold the Law, or what passes fer sich in the Territory, I finds we cain't bushwhack the clown yonder in jes' the way ya outlines so handsomely."

"No?" Sally, feeling her day was going from bad to worse. " I got lots of spare ammo? Won't be the least trouble, lover?"

"Nah, we got'ta play by the rules these days, lady." Henrietta shaking her head sadly the while. "Come on, let's get on up with the ol' codger; we'll make him take us t'the stream where he apparently found the nuggets—then we can decide if there's any sand ter his ramblings, or not. OK?"

"Suppose." Sally nodding, but unwillingly. "But I ain't happy, lover."

"Neither am I, darlin', neither am I." Henrietta flicking her reins and riding forward. "Hey, you! Ya clown, we're ridin' on ter the stream, OK?"

"What stream?" Nat not quite up to speed with what was going forward. "Oh, thet stream! Right, leddies right. Nuthin' easier, I'm sure."

—O—

It was a stream, not only in name but substance too; water flowing over a shallow bed of pebbles with a few larger rocks distributed randomly to make the water-flow seem more dramatic than it really was. About twenty feet wide it simply flowed across the grass plain, mindful of its own business.

The trio pulled up their steeds on the near bank, considering the spectacle.

"This here's jes' a stream, Nat." Henrietta carefully outlining what she saw. "Nuthin' remotely interestin' about the thing, at all. This ain't a gold-bearin' river, no-how."

"It dam' well is—er, thet's ter say, this's where I found the dam' nuggets, sure as Riley."

Meaning to take a more serious outlook on the matter Sally, not without a great deal of physical relief, dismounted and stepped to the verge of the stream—bending to flick her ungloved fingers through the cool water.

"Nat, this here stream ain't never, in its entire life, ever seen so much as a single speck o'gold."

Making a curious grunting sound behind his beard the old prospector climbed laboriously from his own saddle, approaching the kneeling woman and taking a long considering look around at the surrounding landscape.

"Waal."

Henrietta, slumped forward with elbows comfortably placed on her saddle-horn, could see where this conversation was going.

"Nat, this ain't the right river, is it?"

The old man stood by the stream, raised his hat to scratch the mass of unruly hair revealed, looked at the now standing Sally, glanced round at Henrietta on her steed, took another look at the nearby terrain and, spitting copiously into the grass by his boots once more, gave up the argument.

"Aww, Gawd! Sppcch!"

Sally was quick to react to this admittance.

"Jee-sus, Joo—seph, an' everyone else!" She throwing her hat on the grass and jumping on it in rage. "You bloody fool! You cain't even find the same dam' river you took the gold out'ta. Jee-sus!"

Nat searched round for a way out; but the route he took could hardly be said to be either helpful or mature.

"Waal, they all look's mighty sim'lar, ya got'ta admit."

By this time Henrietta, tired of looking down on the drama like a spectator in the Gods of a theatre, had dis-mounted and joined the happy duo.

"They all looks mighty sim'lar?" She gazing at the prospector with a sad expression. "Thet ain't no-how good enuff, Nat. What we requires is the same, not different, river from which ya stole them dam' nuggets. Not any river, but the exact same one, d'ya unnerstan'?"

All this time Nat had been, in his own way, cogitating on the problem; but the outcome of his lucubrations was, again, not in any way helpful.

"Lookin' aroun', here, I admits these Hills is as sim'lar ter theirsel', all ways combin'd, as any dam' where I've ever bin. Never realised same a'fore; but there it is. Leddies, I cain't remember where the original river was—an' if I was taken straight to it, I still couldn't stamp its certificate as bein' same—they all lookin' so dam' like each other. Leddies, perhaps we ought'a part company, jes' fer a few weeks, till I see's if'n I can find the dam' river. Meb'be, but I ain't makin' any promises, mind. Say, oh, two month?"

A long, a very long, pause now ensued; Henrietta speechless and almost paralysed by circumstances; Sally, on the other hand, obviously harbouring a plan: she stepping back, drawing her left-hand Smith and Wesson .38 and making preparations to do something drastic.

"Sal! Sal! Hold hard, there!" Henrietta stepping to the side of her irate companion. "Time an' Place, leddy—Time an' Place; an' these ain't neither. Take it easy."

"I'd be some more happy ter see the dead corpse o'this moron washin' down this here stream, is what I'd dam' well like, darlin''.

"There, there." Henrietta placing a consoling hand on the shoulder of her lover. "All in good time. What we needs right now is a plan."

"Plan?" Sally hardly any calmer. "What sort of plan? For what?"

"To find the dam' river this fool's mis-remembered." Henrietta taking deep breaths to hold her own feelings under control. "Much as I admits yer idee, o'shootin' the incompetent fool outright an' ridin' off, takes care of all the necessary side-issues, I got'ta say there may still be some slight chance of reapin' good from evil, here."

Sally was hardly cheered by this soliloquy.

"You're dreaming, lover; this id-yeet couldn't find his own boots, waking up in the morning and falling out'ta bed, is all. Find a gold-bearing stream in these Hills, where streams is ten-a-dollar? You, nor he, ain't got a chance."

Henrietta, having some kind of misty thought forming in the back of her mind, took the soothing line.

"It's near mid-day, what say we make camp an' think about the problem some? Meb'be, with coffee an' those rabbit steaks in yer saddle-bag, we can come up with sumthin'?"

"Hardly likely." Sally, not willing to see the sun shine although it was doing the very same right over her head as she spoke, scowled mournfully at her lover and scornfully at Nat at the same time—something she had brought to a fine art—then muttered under her breath, sighing dolefully the while. "Oh, OK. But whatever it is you come up with, lady, it better be good. Nat, we finds this stream, loaded with gold nuggets glinting in the sunshine some time this afternoon, or the chances of you returning to Firbank all in one piece is mighty slim, is all."

"Gawd, is it my fault I cain't recall the exact stream, in this dam' wilderness?

"Yeah!"

"Yes, it dam' well is!"

"Oh!"

—O—

Two hours later they had ridden another 5 miles into the Hills; these now being somewhat steeper and more numerous, but still easily accessible by mount. As a result of the many passes and low valleys intersecting the peaks there were far more shallow but fast-flowing streams all across the uneven plain they rode over; Henrietta pausing by a likely candidate, watching Nat's reactions closely.

"This ain't it, is it, Nat?"

Nat gave the stream a careful examination, then admitted defeat.

"Naw, dam'mit."

"Sh-t!" From Sally whose butt, she felt, was by now in dire need of medical assistance.

Half an hour later still they had advanced through a sort of long Pass, coming out into another plain though still covered with the ubiquitous grass, there being several rather deeper rivers in sight.

"I says we head over to the left, there." Sally pointing to make her decision more obvious. "Mighty likely-looking river over there."

Henrietta had other ideas.

"I can see a fair river, over t'our right, thetaways—meb'be a mile." She, too, pointing to solidify her decision. "Looks like its flowin' some fast—sort'a flow you'd get gold washin' through, I opines."

Nat, however, had been staring straight ahead, eyeing something in the far distance.

"Leddies', I may be wrong, I admits, but I fancy thet river over yonder—"

"Where? Cain't see dam'-all thataway's." Sally trying to find a comfortable position in her saddle and failing miserably. "What makes you think it, ol' timer?"

"Will ya both stop callin' me an ol' timer?" Nat turning on his companions, some spitefully. "I'm dam' fifty-eight, which in my book makes me a young mustang still, so there. What? What was it ya asked, by'n'by?"

Henrietta kept a politic silence, but Sally sighed mournfully.

"Nat, you ape; what makes you think a river, in the far distance where neither Harry nor I can see it, is the single dee-finite river o'your dreams? Go on, tell us?"

For answer Nat hauled the head of his steed round and pointed back the way they had just come.

"See thet hill over yonder? The one with the double peak; like two plump round ti—er, nat'ral mounds?"

The women condescended to look in the direction indicated, Sally taking up the strain of conversation once again.

"Yeah, we does; what about 'em?"

But Nat was on a roll, bucking-up with every passing second.

"An' ya both sees, clear as daylight, thet stand o'timber some half mile off—the one with the tall firs standin' high in its centre?"

Turning in their saddles the ladies had once more to acknowledge the truthfulness of Nat's description.

"Yeah, they're there, sure'nuff." Henrietta admitting the fact with as little enthusiasm as she felt the situation warranted.

"An', over ter the right, there—the other hill with the sloping right-side, an' the near vertical north-side, though still covered in this dam' grass; some of a bare wall o'rock close ter its summit?"

Yet again the women had to admit to the authenticity of the prospector's apparent local knowledge.

"So?" Sally, looking round at her lover, their companion, and the landscape in general. "So, what?"

"It's like as I remembers it, is all." Nat coming out, to the womens' consternation, with a broad grin, not a pretty sight. "Y'know how's yer takes sight o'the local environment when yer out in the wild—rocks, valleys, hills, pertik'ler trees, an' sich-like nat'ral fee-nomena?"

"Yeah." Henrietta raising her eyebrows, wondering where this was heading.

"The which I've al'lus done my whole life-long—an' which I didn't forgo doin' last month when I pans this here stream." He slapped his thigh triumphantly, clearly certain of the facts this time. "This's the place, leddies, sure as my Dutch Uncle's called Van Dam."

"Jee-sus!" Sally wholly astonished by this turn of events.

"Huu-rruuph!" Henrietta keeping her cards to herself for now.

—O—

The river was about four feet in depth, generally speaking, and nearly thirty feet in width; the banks again around three feet in height, though there were many places collapsed into the current allowing easy access to the water surface. In many of the wide bends were small pebbly beaches, near custom-made for panning gold; and, half-an-hour later, as they rode along the near-bank, they reached one of these, Nat halting his steed and letting out a holla of triumph.

"There, leddies, see? Ol' boxes an' bits an' pieces—my ol' pannin' site, plain as beef jerky. We're here!"

"I-will-be-dam'med!" Sally, frozen in her saddle in shock.

"At bloody last." Henrietta taking the realistic view. "So, what're ya gon'na do, pard? Start pannin' right-off?"

Nat snorted through his abundant beard at this suggestion, spitting yet again in answer to what he obviously thought an asinine question.

"Hell, it's near evenin', leddies. Spcch!" He steered his mount along, heading for the pebbly beach and his old haunt. "We can take a gander at the terrain, sure; but there won't be light enuff in another hour ter do anythin' other than wrap oursel's in our blankets, prep'tery ter visitin' the Land o'Nod."

"Chr-st!" Sally having had enough for one day, anyway.

"Oh, well." Henrietta wrapping herself in stoical calm.

But Sally had also noticed something more relevant to their present condition.

"Nat?"

"What?"

"Ye jes' spat on thet there rock, didn't ya?"

"So what? I spits a lot, an' handsome."

"So we noticed." Henrietta unable to keep a certain scrupulousness out of her tone.

"There's blood in it." Sally continuing with her observations. "You sick, Nat?"

The prospector leaned forward on his saddle, elbows wrapped round the horn, musing on this query before replying.

"May be I has some long-lasting difficulty in cutting the phlegm, sure; but it ain't nuthin' ter get agitated over—a few throat-clearin's an' I'm fine agin', 'cept fer a modicum of blood spots in the phlegm, is all. Take no heed."

"Oh, God!" Sally making the obvious conclusion. "We're out here, in the middle of nowhere, with a man who's coughing his lungs up! Nat, come Hell or High Water we heads back ter Firbank in three days at the latest, an' you sees the local Doc without fail, OK?"

"Jeez, OK. G-d'd-m women!"

"What was thet last remark, ya ol' goat?" Henrietta not suffering that sort of thing for any excuse.

"Nuthin' leddies, nuthin'; jes' clearin' my throat's all."

"Hrr-rrph!"

—O—

The following morning, after a breakfast of beans, rabbit leftovers, and some sort of dough-ball scones Sally had made herself before departing Firbank two days previously and which now, naturally, were somewhat dry in the mouth necessitating being swamped in liquid honey from the large tin of same she had also brought along; after this refreshment the nearby stream still looked, to the women at least, uninspiring in the extreme.

"Y'sure thi—"

But Henrietta wasn't allowed to finish her question.

"Yeah, 'course I'm sure." Nat obviously having decided that, now in the presence of the natural phenomena that was saddled with making him rich beyond the dreams of those old-time Emperors and such, he could break free from his shackles and rise triumphant over all. "This here's my ol' camp, sure as beans; so, this's where I found them dam' nuggets, an' thet's straight."

Half an hour later and there were three pan-handlers crouching on the edge of the river-flow, swirling water in their individual flat iron pans. Henrietta and Sally, while Nat made preparations with the equipment all three had brought along, had walked along the river-bank some quarter-mile in each direction; they're eventual findings not creating much enthusiasm.

"Sal," Henrietta sharing her thoughts as they returned to the camp and Nat. "I figures straight this here's a bum's rush."

"Harry," Sally slouching mournfully along by her partner's side. "I agrees complete, and only puts it in print, high black and bold, my original idee o'shootin' the skunk and leaving him fer the coy'otes was by far, and still is, the best idee going, in this part of the world."

"Hu-rruph!" Henrietta stopped on the brink of the river beside the crouching prospector, gazing at his equipment scattered round. "What's with all the pans?"

"Ya want's ter see gold nuggets?" He smirking through his beard as he looked up at the pair of Valkyries who were his personal Nemesis. "The faster we pans the quicker we gets results. So, grab these here pans, an' start pannin'."

Twenty minutes later both women had taken enough of this form of exercise to last them for years to come. Sally sat back, dropped her pan by her boots, and gave Nat an evil look.

"Nat, g-d'd-m you!"

"What?" He looking at Sal over his shoulder, water sloshing from his pan as he continued working. "What's the beef now?"

To which silly question Sally had a multitude of answers.

"Nat, you old bean, you." She settling back on the dry pebbles for the long haul. "We, Harry nor I, ain't prospectors; we ain't pan-handlers; we ain't searching for gold as if it were the only activ-veetee going; we're Deputies for Law and Order; so what I sez is—what the Hell?"

"What she means, Nat, is—how long's this here paddlin' in cold water gon'na last, a'fore we sees results?" Henrietta trying to sharpen the focus of her lover's diatribe.

Nat took time to consider this question, mulling over it like an ancient Philosopher before giving the ladies of his best.

"Leddies, pan-handlin's a Art, is what it is." He seeming almost to recede into a dream-like state as he reflected on the profession which had taken up so much of his corporeal life. "Ya needs the right equipment—I've seen amateurs goin' out in'ta the wilds with less equipment than a child o'ten'd think sufficient unto the occasion. Then ya got'ta have the know-how t'recognise the right kind'a river ad'visable ter yer purpose; there bein', as ya no doubt unnerstan's clear, rivers as is deep an' menacin', an' sich as is shallow an' mighty comfortin' an' invitin' ter look at.—"

"Good God!" Sally hardly believing her ears, realising she and Henrietta were now having to listen to a lecture on the merits of pan-handling.

"—you two no doubt rem'embrin' clear the old adage?"

A pause ensued, before the ladies realised the prospector was actually waiting for an answer.

"What?"

"Wha'ya gettin' at?"

"Though you run rough, and I run even; for every one you drown, I drown seven!" Nat peering up at his audience to judge their reactions to his trip into the Land of Poetry.

"What?" From a bemused Henrietta.

"Jay-sus!" From Sally, rapidly losing what little cool she still retained.

"My ol' gran'ma taught me thet." He obviously proud of his poetic memory. "By which I simple means—this here's a relative shallow stream, compared t'some o'these deep rivers ya both seem so set on swimmin' in. But, shallow as may be, its swift-flowin' waters is what we wants; rather than the slower depths o'the greater rivers. Gold sinkin' ter the bottom, an' not movin' further on, in deep slow rivers than shallow fast-flowin' stream currents, y'see. It's Science, is all."

"Dear God, take me now." Sally having finally lost the will to live.

"Gal, I'm at yer side." Henrietta deciding her companion was speaking true, for once.

—O—

The day, as days do when you aren't having fun, ran its course with the brakes hard on; the women having long given up trying to emulate the prospector, leaving him in solitary possession of the stream-side while they sat on the grassy bank merely watching while quietly, so he wouldn't hear them, criticising his efforts.

"It's my idee he's going about this all wrong."

"Ah, why so, young 'un?"

"He's set on pannin' this stream to death." Sally curling a sweet but presently supercilious lip. "Markin' every dam' pebble and grain of sand individ-ool. At this rate he'll still be here, pannin' away, when we're old white-haired hags, is my reading of the sity'atin."

"Got'ta agree there, lover." Henrietta acknowledging the obvious. "What he's after is any single nugget; what we requires bein' the original placer where they come from."

"Got it in one, darling."

Silence reigned for a considerable period; the birds, what few were in the vicinity, sang a low song; the stream flowed on its course with that tinkling sound which, as anyone who has read a lot of romantic poetry can readily attest, becomes rapidly more annoying than almost any other sound; the intermittent breeze rustled through the surrounding plains of grass with a demon-like persistence that finally got on the nerves; and the sun beat down with a brutal indifference to human needs; Sally, as was only to expected, broke first.

"G-d'd-m it!"

"What, gal, what?"

"I refuses, complete, to sit here any longer; going loco by instalments like a story in a monthly magazine."

Henrietta put out her arm to place a soothing hand on her lover's shoulder, only to find Sally was already on her feet and mobile.

"Come on."

"What? Where? Why?"

"No more questions—no more sitting around like a gopher with haemorrhoids—let's get to it, gal."

"Get t'what?"

"Why, finding this supposed lost placer, is all." Sally having constructed a plan to cover all eventualities. "We leaves this half-wit here, paddling in his pool like a child; we goes off up-country—I'm thinking those hills over to our left—and try to find the place where these dam' nuggets that caused all this kerfuffle came from."

Rising to her feet Henrietta traipsed along by her lover's side, heading for their steeds.

"And what if we don't?"

Sally, still striding determinedly forward into her future, glanced at her paramour with a dark frown.

"Don't? Don't what?"

"Find any nuggets—any gold—anything at all? What then?"

Sally paused, making Henrietta take three steps forward before she realised she was now a solitary walker and had to turn back.

"We leaves this id-yeet doing what he seems to think is the only activ-veetee worth doing anywheres." She shrugged in disgust. "We loads our pots and pans on our hosses; we high-tails it out'ta here, never to return no-how whatever; and goes back to Red Flume, expostulating to one and all panning fer gold's a mug's game, and we are no longer patrons of said racket, is all."

"Oh."

—O—

The separate group of hillocks, where the stream seemed to have its origin, was only some two miles distant, allowing the duo to reach the area in something less than an hour; taking account of the innumerable other streams they had to negotiate on the way.

"God, where'n hell does all the water come from, thet's washin' off these dam' hills all day long?" Henrietta, after getting her boots wet for the fourth time, having firm opinions on the matter. "It not having, t'my certin knowledge, rained this three weeks past."

"It's a nat'ral mystery, is all; leave it be." Sally turning more and more morose as they neared the hillocks. "Who gives a dam'?"

Finally they reached an area below the most prominent of the small hills, where their own individual stream flowed from a small spring exiting a bare patch of rock at the grassy slope's base.

"Is this it?" Henrietta hardly convinced by the inconclusive nature of the surrounding environment. "It's jes' a pool o'water, under a stand o'rocks. Seen thousands like it a'fore—an' none held gold, as I remembers."

A few minutes scrabbling around at the foot of the low hill, and the spring in particular, convinced the searchers they were pursuing a lost cause.

"There ain't a gold placer within miles of here." Sally making her scientific decision clear to one and all. "Rocks, boulders, pebbles, gravel—yeah. Gold—no!"

Even Henrietta, always open to the least likely of opinions, had to allow the truth of this remark.

"Yeah, there ain't, nor ever was, any gold in this here stream." She glanced over the small pool under the little spring once again. "A little dribble o'water, bare rocks—an' boulders a'plenty. Gold, be dam'med!"

"So, what do we do now, lover?" Sally pin-pointing the next step with clarity and a great deal of grumpiness.

"We goes back ter thet ol' fool, yonder, up ter his knees in this here stream; drags him out'ta said watercourse an' back ter reality some certin; then we hauls his sorry ass back ter Firbank, where he can tell everyone an' their Aunt there ain't no gold in the Caryan Hills, no ways, is what we does, gal."

Sally wasn't slow to agree with this intelligent notion.

"Thet there's what I calls a plan, dear; let's go to it, a'fore the sun sets."

"After you, lover."

—O—

Someone once stated it was better to travel than to arrive—a curious concept, open to a multitude of interpretations—but in this present situation Henrietta and Sally suddenly found themselves in the pulsing heart of the aphorism. On once again reaching the old prospector's camp by the river's edge they found drama and tragedy struggling for dominance over-all.

"Jee-sus Chr-st! What's this?"

Sally, having relieved her feelings in the appropriate and generally accepted manner, strode to the bank of the stream to look over to where Nat was visible some five yards out in the flow. "The fool's face down in the water! Jee-sus, come on; let's get the id-yeet out a'fore he drowns."

But even the best efforts of the women were no good. Ten minutes later, after the expenditure of a great deal more effort than either woman had expected, it was obvious to even the untrained eye that Nat Hancock, gold prospector extraordinaire, had gone home to his ancestors without leaving a parting note.

"He's dead."

"I figured." Henrietta acknowledging the corporeal certainty of her partner's words.

"What the dam' now?"

"We hauls his carcass back ter Firbank, offloads same in'ta the arms of Sheriff Harleston, acceptin' no returns; then high-tails it fer Red Flume like the Pony Express." Henrietta sure of their position at last. "In the doin' o'which we also makes it clar ter all an' sundry o'said Firbank citizens there ain't no gold in the Caryan Hills, no-way's."

Sally pondered this plan as they stood over the mortal remains, scratching her head in mystification.

"So where'd he find those two gold nuggets, original, then?"

"Wherever it was, it wasn't in a stream in the Caryan Hills, thet's certin."

Sally thought about this aspect of their late adventure for a while.

"A grift, you mean?"

"Some like; though what his even'tul purpose might'a bin is anybody's guess." Henrietta shrugging disinterestedly. "Come on, you grab his legs an' ass, I'll haul the rest o'him up over his hoss. God, what a dam' day."

"You can say thet agin, lover." Sally taking deep breaths preparatory to a physical work-out she didn't really want any part of. "The next oaf comes a'fore me, rambling of gold finds, I shoots him promis'cus, no excuses taken—an' no-one nay-says same, no-how!"

"Baby, I agree's, wholehearted!"

The End

—O—

Another 'Red Flume' story will arrive shortly.