His Lucky Charm - Cover

His Lucky Charm

Copyright© 2012 by Argon

Chapter 5: The Sluice Box

Tarryall, Colorado Territory, April 1861

The last leg of the journey, across Kenosha Pass, took them another eight days. This was a horse and mule trail only, forbidding for wagons which had to take the detour along Santa Fe road and a primitive road up to Ute Pass to reach South Park. The trip further solidified their closeness, and for the two couples it became clear that Raven Feather was one of them. When they made camp just past Kenosha Pass, Ned and Jim brought the topic up and offered Raven to stay with them. Giving them all a shy, grateful smile, Raven accepted.

Tarryall had grown into a small and ramshackle copy of Denver City. They rode into the town around noon and Rose saw the 'Golden Nugget' and the Mother Lode, the two saloons Tarryall could boast, and she shuddered involuntarily. Three women were standing around the entrance of the Mother Lode. They were dressed in gaily colored dresses, but nothing could hide the misery of their existence. Stuck in a mining town, beyond the end of the world, had to be the worst proposition for a saloon girl.

Jim and Ned saw something that was of great interest to them. Two gold traders had opened shop since last fall, and the blackboards told them that gold dust fetched $16 per troy ounce; nuggets went at a premium of $17. A fur trader had opened shop too. Jim and Ned decided that they could do their trading without the tedious travel. That would give them two additional months to pan for gold and would offset the lower prices they would get for their furs.

At the livery stable, Jim and Ned made arrangements to sell the bushwhackers' horses, and they were able to get $135 for the three animals, with saddles and tack. Prices were soaring in the diggings. Jim would deliver the animals after they had unloaded them.

They rode off along Tarryall Creek until they turned into the narrow valley that constituted their claim. The log cabin was situated on a rock ledge, ten feet above a small feeder creek. This year's snow melt had deposited large amounts of silt and sand along the sides, and Jim realized that Ned's idea, to roll boulders into the creek to create a backlog, had served to increase the deposits.

The cabin was indeed roomy, Rose decided, at least twenty by twelve feet on the inside. It was also obvious that no woman had ever set foot into it. The floor boards were dirty and raw, the logwood table was in sore need of a sanding, and the two cots were not too inviting, either.

"They need women, they really do," Mandy stated grimly, echoing Rose's thoughts.

In contrast to Mandy who had been a proper housewife before her first husband's suicide, Rose was not really appalled by the state of the cabin. Ned and Jim had done the back-breaking work of gold washing and - in winter - trapping. The cabin was a means of survival in winter, nothing more, certainly not a homestead. Nevertheless, Rose had a sinking feeling. Living here would be so much different from what she was accustomed to.

In a concerted effort, all five worked together to clear the cabin of food wastes and of the worst dirt. Jim and Ned promised to build new, larger bed frames, but it was Raven who really knew how to make the cabin habitable. Of the three women, she was the only one who had lived in a log cabin before, and she brought in the items from her abandoned cabin.

When night fell, they slept on makeshift beds on piles of fresh pine twigs. Rose decided that she liked the fresh smell, and she slept surprisingly well.

As promised, Ned and Jim set out to cut two pine trees. With the use of an old saw, they cut seven foot and six foot lengths of pine wood, to form two sturdy, seven by six, bed frames, with five foot bed posts. In the meantime, the women were busy to join bison hides into eight by seven foot sheets which were then suspended over the frames, hairy side down, using leather thongs.

Using sack cloth, Rose even fashioned bed curtains to afford them a modicum of privacy in the single room cabin.

The better one of the old cots was fitted with a fresh bison hide too for Raven's use.

Five very tired people went to sleep that evening. Even so, Ned and Mandy soon began their nightly ritual, and soon the sounds of their coupling filled the cabin. Jim and Rose still did not have that intimacy. For once, they had shared their bedding with Raven for most of the trip. Secondly, Jim was at a loss how to initiate things with a 'real woman', one he did not have to pay first, and thirdly, Rose felt apprehensive. The thought of living in this primitive cabin in the middle of nowhere was unsettling to her. So much, in fact, that she not even tried to cuddle with Jim.

The men were off, the next morning, to examine the silt placers in the small creek. It seemed like every year some new gold was deposited, washed out from a place upstream. After they had done their chores, the women took a break to find their men.

Jim and Ned were busy working a device called a sluice box. It was an oblong wooden box, open at both ends, and subdivided by low wooden barriers. It was positioned at a place where the creek tumbled down over a ledge. The water could stream through the box.

The men dropped shovel loads of silt into the upper third of the box. In theory, the water washed away the sand and small pebbles, leaving the gold behind. In real life, the men had to swirl the water with their hands, the cold water biting into them. Every shovel load yielded perhaps two or three small flecks of gold.

It was a grueling work Rose could see. Yet, by noon, the men had collected a half ounce of gold dust worth $8. She made her suggestion at lunch.

"This cabin isn't big enough to keep three women busy. If we had another sluice box, Mandy and I could help."

"That's awful hard work," Ned said.

"So it is," Mandy said. "Rose is right. Even if we can't work as much as you men, we can contribute."

Ned scratched his head.

"Y'know, Jim, it can't hurt to have them try."

Thus, in the afternoon, Jim and Ned fashioned another sluice box and installed it a little upstream of the cabin. On the next morning, the two couples set out to their work. Raven had agreed to tend the cabin and to have food ready for them. They had kept the weapons of the bushwhackers, and Raven said she'd try to hunt in the afternoon. She had selected a well-kept Kentucky Rifle for her use.

Panning for gold in the ice-cold water was indeed back-breaking work Rose soon found out. It was eased, however, by the good luck they had. She and Jim managed to recover close to an ounce of gold dust by midday, and Mandy and Ned had not fared worse. Earning $30 in one morning made up for a lot of back pain.

In their short break, they had a noon meal of beans and pemmican prepared by Raven. She had roasted and ground some coffee beans too and boiled coffee for them. With aching limbs, Rose and Mandy followed Jim and Ned to the creek after the meal and resumed their work.

That evening, Rose barely had the energy to eat a few bites of the hare Raven had shot before she dropped onto the cot. She was dead to the world immediately, and she never noticed Jim who undressed her carefully before he joined her under the blankets.

The next morning was pure hell for Rose. Every joint hurt, every muscle protested whenever she moved. Yet, when they tallied their wins of the day before, when she saw that they had panned almost four ounces of gold dust, she forced herself to her feet and followed Jim to their placer.

The next days and weeks became a repeating pattern of getting up to a hurried breakfast, working the sluice box until noon, wolfing down a hasty meal, returning to the work, and dropping into bed at sundown for an exhausted sleep.

By the end of June, they had recovered over sixty ounces of gold dust and a few good-sized nuggets worth a little over $1,000. At this point pickings became slimmer, and they had to dig deeper into the silt deposits. They were exhausted too. Each of the small group had worked twelve and more hours each day, hard physical labor, for two months.

The Fourth of July celebrations in Tarryall provided them with an excuse to take a few days' break. They spent two days just resting, eating, and mending their clothes. Then, on the Fourth, the two couples rode into Tarryall. Raven stayed behind. She claimed to be wary of these celebrations, and it was probably a sensible decision.

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