photo by Agustin Berrocal
Hank leaned against a tree. The rough bark bit into the flesh of his forearm as he rested his forehead on his sweaty skin. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Air was the only thing he could still afford, air and the water that trickled mockingly past his feet.
A crunch in the leaves startled him, but he did not look up until he felt an arm around his shoulder.
"You still here, son?" The grizzled prospector looked Hank over, shaking his head. "How'd you come to pick this sorry ravine?"
"Mr. Wallace at the Land Office said it was a good claim, sir," Hank said, shaking old Sam's arm off.
Sam snorted. "Wily Wallace was a snake-oil salesman long afore he joined up with the guv'ment. He ain't changed his spots none."
Hank bit his lip, and looked down at his scruffy boots. Sam sighed, and patted the young man's shoulder again. "You've done your best here. Go on home, son. Take up a trade, find a nice girl."
"I can't," Hank whispered. "I can't go home."
Hank straightened up, pans clanking in his pack. "Times were hard after Papa died. Mama sent me to sell the herd, to get enough money to keep the ranch. I met a man who made me a better offer: trade the cattle for a prospectin' kit, head north to where the streambeds are made of gold, where a young man can dig up enough to buy the ranch and the herd five times over, all in one afternoon. I took his tools and just kept goin'. I thought I could make a quick fortune and be right back. And I knew in the back of my mind that if I told Mama, she'd call me a fool." Hank sat down on a stump, and put his face in his hands. "She would've been right."
"Get back to your Mama, boy. You've worried her long enough."
"But I keep thinkin' I'll find some gold in the next pan. Or the next. Just one more . . . And that's all I can do. I've spent everything I had. I can't even buy a ticket home."
Sam pursed his lips. "Now, I might be able to help you out a bit, for your Mama's sake."
Hank stood up and adjusted his pack. "No, sir, I've got to do this on my own. So long," he said, tramping into the ravine.
Hank walked upstream until he was too dizzy to go on. He unpacked his pans and sluice box, wondering when his stomach had stopped growling. Had it given up on him, too? He spotted a few unripe blackberries and choked them down, but felt worse than before. He sluiced his throat with the cold mountain stream, then set to work.
Scoop, shake, sort, swat mosquitoes, repeat. Hank's eyes grew heavy. Scoop, shake, swat . . .
Hank woke with a jerk. He could see stars between the pine needles. A bat flitted across the sky. Something skittered through the underbrush. And what was that smell? It was so faint he thought he must be imagining it. Then a breeze came down the slope, bringing more of the scent. Hank scrambled up and felt his way through the trees, following his nose.
He rounded a boulder and found himself at the entrance of a cave. His eyes ignored the shadows and focused on the light shining a few yards inside. Sinking to his hands and knees, Hank crawled toward the bed of gleaming nuggets. He closed his eyes and breathed a prayer of thanks for this bonanza, then reached--
"What you think you doing?" A gruff voice issued from the shadows. "You burn hand. And it not your food. For my man."
Hank sat back on his heels as an immense woman detached herself from the darkness. He took in her unkempt hair and robe made of rough skins. He thought he ought to be afraid, but he blurted out, "But I'm so hungry! Taters have never smelled so good. Please, mayn't I just have one?"
She squatted on the other side of the fire and fixed Hank with unblinking eyes. "He miss even one. You eat his food, maybe he eat you instead."
Hank shivered. He wrapped his arms around himself, but the shivering didn't stop. He started to feel dizzy again.
The woman narrowed her eyes. Using a stick, she pulled one of the potatoes off the bed of coals. Leaving it in front of her left toes, she cocked her head at Hank and asked, "Why?"
Hank poured out his story once again. He wasn't sure the woman could understand all of it, but she didn't move while he spoke. When he finished, she nodded once.
"Eat." She pushed the cooling potato in his direction. He took it in both hands, closed his eyes, sniffed, then took a bite. It tasted even better than it smelled, warm and soft and almost buttery, even though she hadn't spread anything on it.
"Oh, thank you, ma'am. This is better than any gold." Hank licked the crumbs off his fingers.
"True," the woman said, raising her shaggy eyebrows. "But now you hide."
Hank heard a crashing in the trees outside the cave. The woman pushed him toward the wall, and covered him with smelly furs. Lying still on the stone floor, Hank lifted the fur to peek out. He saw a massive foot, as long as Hank's whole arm, and covered in dark, matted hair. He decided he'd seen enough.
"Where my food?" rumbled a gravelly voice. "One gone."
"Bear steal it while I fetch water."
"What I smell?"
"Bear. I get it. Make rug next day."
The big foot kicked at Hank's hiding place. Thankfully, Hank's yelp coincided with a massive sneeze.
"Bear. You eat food."
Hank listened to slurps, grunts, and a few more sneezes as the owner of the foot devoured the potatoes. Despite his terror, and a little envy, he fell into a deep sleep.
Hank woke to early daylight. He found himself bouncing along on a fur-clad shoulder, still wrapped in the bear skin. "Hey!" he cried.
The bouncing stopped. The huge woman set him down on the turf next to the stream. Hank scrambled up. There was his pack, his pans waiting on the bank. He reached to pick up the sluice box.
"No. You not need." She stuffed Hank's pack with pale yellow potatoes. "Take these, plant at home. No come back."
Daylight was not kind to the woman. Now Hank could see spiders in her hair, the grayish tone of her skin. Still, he remembered his manners.
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am. This is my treasure, now."
Her granite skin crinkled around her eyes as she patted his head.
She stepped back between the trees as Hank shouldered his pack. He thought, briefly, of how much heavier it would be if it were full of gold nuggets. A lot heavier, but not nearly as tasty. Considering prices in town, he should be able to trade a few taters for the price of a train ticket, and still have enough to plant on the ranch. Maybe he could even send Mama a telegram. Hank whistled as he toted his edible gold back to civilization.