The shots he heard were too numerous to be a hunter’s work. Maybe Indians had come upon a trapper. Better check it out. If Indians got the trapper, they would be onto him next. Two guns stood a better chance than one, especially when the second wasn’t expected.
The firing had stopped as he peered into the creek bed. A downed man was being clubbed with a rifle butt, while two men looked on with drawn pistols. Instinctively he ordered, “Hold it.”
Three weapons swung in his direction. What have I gotten myself into flashed across his mind as he squeezed the trigger on his .52 caliber Sharps carbine. The 475 grain projectile found its mark. He dropped his Sharps and ducking moved to the right. Then he stood up and fanned off two shots from his ’51 Navy Colt.
Three men were dead. What was it all about?
“Thanks, mister,” said the gold miner. “You’re too late for me, but not for my wife and daughter, if you’re an honest man. I’ve found a rich vein of gold. Promise me you will file my claim for them. Name and address is on a letter in my pocket.”
He had had a wife and daughter. They had been raped and murdered by Sherman’s war criminals. By the time he found his way home from Appomattox, he had been claimed jumped. Carpetbaggers had stolen his land. After killing them, he fled west to the frontier.
The gold vein was riches in his hands. The gold bequeathed him a new life, a California ranch or a saloon in San Francisco. He had tried to stop the killing of this man, but had no further obligation to him. To head back east would put his own life in jeopardy. Reconstruction justice would make short shrift of him. Better to fill his saddle bags with gold and head on west.
Have to bury this man, he thought. And the claim jumpers. That meant digging two graves. Couldn’t put murderers in the same grave with their victim.
He retrieved the letter. He would write to the wife and let her know that her husband was dead.
What were they like, he wondered, the wife and daughter. How would they fare under Reconstruction? Would they have to earn their keep in a brothel for carpetbaggers and occupation troops? The thought stirred his remorse. If only there had been someone there for his wife and daughter. Still, it was stupid to go back.
But the thought wouldn’t leave him. The more he thought about it, the more conflicted he became. It made sense to ride on with his pockets full of gold. There was no reason to return to a prostrate South where he was hunted and powerless.
He was sleepless that night, haunted by the fate of these two women. Staring up at the stars, he attempted to free himself from the obligation with the question, why did he care? But he knew he should. And he did.
Best to return with a beard and hides. A trapper coming to market would throw off suspicion. That meant delay and time to think how to break the news to the wife.
When he reached what passed for civilization, he sent a letter: “Madam, I came upon your husband too late to save him, but in time to receive his last words and request that I complete his affairs in your interest. I am on my way to you.”
He found her clerking in a dry goods store. The daughter, pretty like the mother, had
cropped hair and was dressed as a boy with loose clothes to hide her budding figure.
He told her about the claim.
“Why didn’t you take the gold?”
He tried to explain. She saw that he was providing the protection to a stranger’s family that he had been unable to provide for his own.
“The claim can’t be filed,” she said. There was no law. She would simply be robbed of the claim by carpetbaggers.
The door swung open. Blue coated riff raft had come to leer at the woman. He turned. The blue coats looked into hard eyes radiating fury. The blue coats understood that in seconds they would be dead on the floor and quickly departed.
She was weary of the strain. Whoever this man was, she wanted his protection for herself and her daughter.
“Let’s go get the gold,” she said, and head on west.