The thaw had come. The sun, so weak and wispy short months before, moved higher and stronger into the sky, erupting into violent golden… showers of deepening color as it settled over the mountains. The night came later and later, a bit more tardy each time it settled its velvet cloak for the evening. Greetings of “have a good evening” changed subtly and unnoticed into “have a good afternoon” for afternoon lingered now, lazily challenging the dark night to cover it. The drip drip of water, beginning with the small punctuation of the icicles, gathered momentum with the running rivulets of melting snow.
The rivers moved. The cracking ice announced their freedom, the boom thundering through the wide river delta. Trapper Jim sat on the porch of his cabin, cleaning his traps and putting them away for the winter. Mutt Head sat beside him, his eyebrows working quizzically as he watched. “Yep,” said Jim. “It’s time to put these away now. We don’t need no shabby, hair turning coats. Get ‘em when they’re slick, ole boy. You know the routine. What ain’t half dead is as motley as grandmother’s moth eaten fur cap. Won’t fetch five dollars on the market. We’ll put these away now and let nature put on her dresses and pretty up a bit.”
Mutt Head looked toward the trail head leading out from the rickety fence and splitting faintly into several directions, then sighed and flopped down in a square of brimming sunlight. “That’s about rightly it,” reproved Trapper Jim. “No more running down to that Miss Sophie’s place, gallivanting around with Etta. You’ve caused an embarrassment. She’s telling me her lead bitch is knocked up and it can’t be nobody but you. What do you have to say to that, old boy? You think it’s okay to go around feeling up a lot of lady sled dogs? You ain’t got a drop of sled dog in you. You’s a nose hound, fella.”
Mutt Head looked properly mortified, rubbing his inquisitive brows with one lanky paw. “Humph,” grunted Trapper Jim. “She ain’t going to have no use for a bunch of nose hound puppies. I guess I’m going to have to take responsibility for finding homes for some of them. Now, who do you think is going to want a hunting dog that runs like hell every time you set him loose?” Mutt Head sneezed. “Nope,” said Trapper Jim. “I reckon I don’t know, either.” He paused and listened to the distant boom. He sniffed the air. “The river’s free.”
He returned to his work, but now his hands shook a little with excitement. His eyes roved past the gate and his breathing quickened. “It won’t do,” he muttered, rubbing a little oil into the hinges of a jaw that was starting to rust. “Everything has its proper place.” He brought out his file and sharpened some of the teeth. “It’s all about what comes first, and first we gotta get all these tools oiled up and put away. We’ve gotta do a little mending here and there. The wind ripped half a dozen shingles off the roof this winter. I’m gonna have to climb up there and replace them. Then, it’s time boy. Then it’s time.” He whistled a little as he thought about it, lifting the traps and stringing them from some nails in the shed. He straightened them with extra care.
Mutt Head caught some of the excitement, romping gaily beside him, splashing through some of the quickly shrinking snow mounds still scattered here and there like patchwork on the bare ground. “Now don’t you get all muddy or Etta will be fit to be tied. She done mopped the floor, mind you and asked that I take off my boots when I come in. Take off my boots! There’s a woman for you. Can’t let a man be comfortable in his own home. She gave me slippers to wear. Funny, little pointy-toed things that she knitted herself. Not that they ain’t comfy, mind you, but how is it I can’t be deciding whether I wanna wear my boots or not? That’s the confounded part of it all. They do these things for you. They call them niceties. That’s to mean they’s being nice and you should be pleased about it, but it comes to a point where you can’t choose to wear your under garments three weeks or four and your socks don’t never get a good layer worked up of sweat and dirt to keep you warm. All at once you’re smelling like an Easter Lily ready all dolled up for Sunday Church every dad blamed morning.” He reached the door of the cabin and put his finger to his lips. “Now don’t you be telling her a word of what I said.”
Etta Mae set as nice a table as anyone that could be found on this side of the Yukon and Mutt Head wasn’t inclined to be giving up any secrets when there was the possibility of a good sized chunk of roast or a chicken scrap to be tossed to him. He was always at his best behavior during meal times, sitting attentively next to Etta’s chair, his eyes pleading for generosity. While Trapper Jim was quite open in breaking out the biscuits and tossing pieces flavored with a bit of gravy, Etta was more reserved. When Mutt Head had managed to work the maximum number of wrinkles around his face and his eyes became so liquid, they filled with tears, he could count on her to carefully cut away some choice pieces of meat, along with some fat and gristle and smuggle it to him as though passing contraband. If Etta was dolling up the house with too many niceties, Trapper Jim’s grumbling was safe with him. The benefits were too great to cause a commotion.
Trapper Jim made sure he had eaten his fill and the table had been cleared before groaning and clenching his head in his hands. “This is it, Etta. The river is breaking. The wilds is a-callin’ me.”
“And what do those wilds be a-tellin’ you?” Asked Etta Mae.
“It’s time to go. The fever has got to me. I’ve gotta go out and do a bit of prospecting.”
“Is that all that’s worrying you? I thought it must be a major calamity to take on such a frightful face.”
“It is a calamity, Etta. I’ll have to be leaving you alone for who knows how long? It might be nigh into fishing season afore I get back.”
“Well now,” said Etta, who along with a good table knew how to affect an agreeable nature. She opened a jar of her own home brew which she kept guarded under the sink and poured the both a glass. “I been thinking about this profession of yours, the gold prospecting one, and I believe I have a hankering to go on an expedition myself.”
“You want to try panning? It’s back breaking work. It’s all about digging and sluicing and washing dirt all day long.”
“I’ve done a bit of spotting here and there. Not enough to account for much, but I’ve got a good strong back and I’m willing to learn.”
“A partner might slow me down in this field. I get this scent, you see. I smell those shiny little nuggets hiding themselves in their snug river nests, happy as clams. I tell you, when you’ve got the fever, there ain’t no stopping you. Sometimes you gotta keep going and going until your hands nearly drop off and your legs can’t stand no more pain.”
“Who’s to be saying I won’t get this fever? I’ve been listening to the cracking of the ice and I’ve been thinking myself how it booms and calls, almost like a melody waiting to tear your heart out. I say four pairs of eyes is better than two, and four pairs of hands can get twice the amount of work done. I wouldn’t be coming to be no hindrance, and I wouldn’t be slowing you down, but I’ve got a mind to try a little prospecting, and it would be a pity if I had to try this out all on my own.”
Trapper Jim had already learned to be wary of when Etta Mae said she had a mind. She surely did, and any efforts to circumvent it would be in vain. Besides, he was warming up quite well and reflected if he left without her, he probably wouldn’t be allowed to take along any of her good home brew. “Now if you’re going out without an idea of what you’re doing, you’re just wasting your time. If you needs be going out, I suppose there’s nothing left I can do except let you tag along. It would be a discourtesy to allow for otherwise.”
Over the next few days, while they packed and made preparations for their trip, Trapper Jim thought of several other things it would be a discourtesy not to have along. They boldly raided all their coffee and tobacco rations, save a small amount squirreled away in a bedroom drawer for when they got back. They packed most of Etta Mae’s carefully hung, dried meat and salmon strips, and of course her brew, leaving only the cranberry wine as an appetizer for when they got back. Although Trapper Jim usually prospected with nothing more than a pack on his back, a pick ax, and his pan, he found himself so encumbered with the things it would be a discourtesy not to bring, he suggested they make a trip to see Clint who knew where they could rent a mule.
Clint was very helpful. He even knew a farm that was renting out horses but both Trapper Jim and Etta shook their heads. They both wanted to stay close to the river banks. The scent of gold was in their nostrils. They would follow it like blood hounds.
“It’s a little early in the season, ain’t it?” Asked the farmer who agreed to rent them the mule on a promissory note of payment in the fall when they cashed in on their summer’s work. “There’s still a spot of snow on the ground.”
“The best time to be panning,” said Jim. “The rivers are swollen with spring melt, just pushin’ along everything it gathered up for the winter. The gold be rollin’ in that current. The gold be as happy about spring as a pretty faced girl. Now, while the rivers are high. That’s when you find it.”
The farmer shook his head and laughed. “I never will understand about you romantic fellows. Gold is a heavy metal. It sinks below the sand. It’s all a matter of science.”
“Did your science find you gold?” Asked Trapper Jim.
“I don’t indulge in it much. Just dabble around for a little recreation. I’ve got the mule and the crops and the family to take care of.”
“In other words, you ain’t never found it. Gold is more than just a heavy metal. It speaks to you, eh? It whispers little fevered messages in your ear at night. It gets all the way down inside your blood; blood vein to gold vein; that’s how it is. Blood vein to gold vein. You know you’ve gotta be right next to it, gotta feels its pulse. Now, you take your science and figure it out how you will but that’s the secret of gold. An’ I’ll tell you what. I’ll bring back a little nugget you can hang from a chain as a bauble for your wife. Then maybe you’ll understand a little more about us romantics.”
The farmer laughed again. “You’re a good man, Trapper Jim. I know you’ll keep your word. You don’t have one outstanding debt in the whole community. If you don’t find your gold, I’m sure you’ll find some way to pay me back.”
There was one more stop to make before beginning their journey; the home of Mutt Head’s heirs. Sure enough, the mama had her puppies, and sure enough Mutt Head was the father. Their coats were shorter than the husky mix that had been carefully distilled to make strong, lean, intelligent dogs. Their ears flopped disgracefully. Their short, broad noses sniffed the floor, then whimpering, returned to the safety of mama’s belly. One in particular was an exact replica of Mutt Head. While the other pups pawed underneath the mother’s sagging tits, the little fella, whose eyes weren’t even open yet, turned around and clumsily tracked the scent of the newcomers.
Sophie wrung her hands. “What am I to do about them? There are a couple that look promising but the rest are well… just mutts. They aren’t built right to be good sled dogs. They won’t have the endurance.”
“Well now,” said Trapper Jim. “We’ll just have to see which ones of them is nose dogs. I reckon I know at least one or two people that would like a good nose dog like ole Mutt Head, here.”
Etta Mae had seated herself on the floor as she looked over the puppies. Trapper Jim watched as Mutt Head’s blind progeny sniffed his way awkwardly across the rug and found a spot on Etta’s lap. Unconsciously, her hands went around the tiny mutt and her fingers stroked his head. “See there,” he said, just a little surprised. “There’s one already. He done come and made himself at home just like Mutt Head did. I’ll bet that nose could sniff out a den of foxes fifty miles away.”
“That’s all I need,” groaned Sophie. “A fox chasing dog tied into my team. This will be the first dog you take responsibility for. I have no use for him whatsoever.”
“Ah, that’s a bit harsh, that’s a mite harsh,” said Trapper Jim. “You never know what good use a nose can be made for. It won’t be no trouble finding a home for him, no trouble at all.” His voice trailed off while he looked speculatively at Etta Mae, still holding the puppy. It neither whimpered, nor showed any inclination to rejoin its mother, simply dozed in her cradled hands.
“You help me find homes for all these nose dogs so I won’t lose my reputation in the breeding circles, and I’ll forgive Mutt Head for his trespasses. Until then, he’s in hot water with me and not allowed on my property.”
“We’ll be back in six weeks,”promised Trapper Jim hastily. “Mutt Head got a little out of line, but we’ll make up for his sins and do the responsible thing. I suggest you give one of them puppies to Clint. He ain’t had much luck in his prospecting. He needs a nose dog to sniff things out for him.”
Both Etta Mae and Trapper Jim were rather silent as they began their journey. They were both a bit perturbed with Mutt Head, but at the same time, they couldn’t blame him for following his natural instinct. They were also a bit perturbed with the mule, which first, did not want to go beyond the boundaries of the community, then balked at every other turn in the trail. They began to wonder if it would have been easier to pack their gear than it was to tug and push at the mule every inch of the way. “Dad nabbit!” Said Trapper Jim, throwing down his hat at one point. “What’s the secret of these critters? How do you make them follow you.”
“I have no idea,” sighed Etta Mae. “How do you make Mutt Head follow you?”
“He just follows.”
“Hmm. Let me take the reins awhile. I’ve got an idea.”
Holding the reins slackly, she took one experimental step. The mule stepped in behind her. She took another and it obliged. As soon as she began walking so fast, the rein tightened, the mule stopped. “That’s it,” she said. “He don’t want no one hurrying him along. We’ve gotta go at his pace.”
“Blamed mule,” muttered Trapper Jim. “Gonna dawdle away the whole day on a blamed mule that wants everything to be at his pace. Not even a please sir, or thank you very much to coax him along the way. It’s gotta be what mule wants. At the rate mule is going, it’ll be the end of summer before we reach our first camp site.”
“He’s coming along. He’s coming along. We just got to give him a little respect.”
“Respect? Mule ain’t even rightly a him, nor a girl or nothin’. Mule is an it.”
“Don’t be hurting his feelings now. I’m only just getting him to follow, pretty as a lamb. It’s not his fault he ain’t able to do the performance the good lord gave nearly every creature on earth the ability to do naturally. Well, and he weren’t natural made either, which is more the pity, but it ain’t like he ever had a say-so and we’d best be blaming our fellow man than a poor, dumb beast.”
“I’m just saying it was a confounded slow witted idea to make a creature that ain’t either man nor woman yet you’ve gotta treat like some sort of royalty.”
“Mule’s coming along. He’s moving his feet.” So he was. The mule seemed to appreciate the steady exchange between Etta Mae and Trapper Jim and had stepped up his pace considerably, his long, tan ears twitching and pointing in the direction of the voices.
“I suppose he wants a lullaby now,” grumbled Jim, noticing the new interest the mule had taken in following them.
“Lordy, don’t be doing that,” warned Etta. “You’ll scare him half out of his wits.” But she did hum a bar or two herself, and sometimes snatches of some old song she’d heard on the radio. She did this cautiously, as much not to rile up Trapper Jim as not to disturb their newly docile companion.
They actually made their first camp site in good time, arriving just as the sun had become nothing more than a yellow crack across the horizon. They lit their hurricane lamps and pitched their tent. Etta Mae was visibly excited. Long after the mule had resigned itself to its tether and had quit braying mournfully, choosing instead to chew on the handful of oats he’d been given; well after Mutt Head had finished patrolling the parameters of the site, chasing off any vigilante squirrels, rabbits or ravens who were contemplating an attack, Etta Mae lay stiff and still in her sleeping bag, her eyes wide open. She nudged Trapper Jim, who had no trouble dozing and was already adding a few spurts and engine roars to the twittering night sounds. “I think I smell gold.”
He stopped a jet turbo in mid flight, turned over and sputtered a few times. He popped open one eye. “That gold ain’t smelling too close yet. What you be catchin’ is the fever.”
“Well, it’s a mighty insistent fever,” said Etta. “It’s done gossiped up so much storm, it’s rattling around in my bones.”
“Yep, that be it. Don’t be listening much to it right now. It’s out there to fool yeh. It’s gonna tell you it’s in a hundred different places so you’re digging things up everywhere while it giggles and hides just like a leprechaun. You’ve gotta make that gold think you ain’t looking for it too hard. You’ve gotta kind of casually give a go at it.”
“It’s a confounded racket,” said Etta, her voice dropping off sleepily.
Despite Trapper Jim’s cautions, Etta was up early in the morning, her pan tucked under her arm. She poked along the river bank until she came to what she thought was a likely place, and crouched down, poking her finger around in the black, sticky sand, trying to decide by the shine how promising it was. Using her shovel, she scooped some of it into her pan and washed it in the stream. She listened carefully, trying to determine in the whooshing water the soft clink of a nugget. She didn’t even notice when Trapper Jim got up and made coffee until the aroma slowly filled the air and she realized she was hungry. She straightened her back, shoving her fist into the middle where it had gotten sore.
There was some sweetened oatmeal bubbling in a pot along with the coffee. Etta scooped up a bowl and sat down. “Did you find anything?” Asked Trapper Jim.
“Color. There was lots of color.”
“Eh. Color it has. That be the fools part of it. Pyrite and mica. Twinkling away at you like a flirty little girl friend. The gold’s farther up the stream. Mutt Head and me, we sensed it out last year.”
“Then why didn’t you stop me from busting my ass off? I done raised blisters on blisters that hadn’t done blistering.”
“Ah, well. Them things happen. You just keep a good eye on Mutt Head here. He knows where the gold’s at. He smells it out.”
Etta spat out the coffee she had just tasted, as though Trapper Jim’s words had made it disagreeable. “I’m not denying that dog does some good smelling. He’s cornered rabbits and foxes, rustled up the trail of wolves and lynxes. The blamed fool even went after a wolverine once. But there never was a dog that could sniff out gold.”
“Mutt Head can,” stated Trapper Jim positively.
“Old mule,” complained Etta, while packing up her gear to move on. “Why ain’t you agreeable with your two-legged brother? You’s both of you, mules; just as damned stubborn and cantankerous as they come. A gold sniffin’ dog. Ain’t no such thing. Why if they was, we should be breeding them out like hot cakes.” She looked thoughtfully at the dog, wagging its tail as it ambled contentedly up the barely noticeable path. “I reckon we would. We’d be popping them out so fast, we’d never have a need to go digging ourselves. We’d be rich, selling gold sniffing puppies.”
They were three days traveling upstream, stopping now and then to test a bank of thick, black sand, while Trapper Jim’s eyes measured the twists and drops of the river. Etta Mae was getting a little cranky. Her gold fever hadn’t abated but now she was more impatient to find the right spot than to dabble with a few shovelfuls of dirt here and there. “It don’t come to you just because you’re demanding it,” said Trapper Jim mildly. “You’ve got to quiet yourself. You’ve got to let it sing. All this rattle and clatter, flash and glitter. It ain’t the gold. It’s just the diversion.”
Mutt Head suddenly barked and began digging at a mud bank at a sharp bend in the river. Trapper Jim walked over to where the dog had his nose buried half way into a sagging depression from the last overflow. “You think it’s there, do you?” He scratched his head and looked about. “I think you’re right. This looks just a drop below where we camped at last year. There were some fine nuggets out there, but I think the real stuff rolled farther down.”
Etta Mae tethered the mule, groomed it down and picked up her pan reluctantly. “I can’t believe you’re going to be using the judgment of a dog. He’s probably smelling some old, rotten fish buried inside there.”
“Be that it may. This is just as good a spot as any. I’ve got me a feeling for it. This is kind of a basket, catching all that winter sludge and swollen water during break up. The heavy stuff likes to sink into here. Ain’t nothing heavier than gold.”
She saw by the way Trapper Jim pitched the tent, drawing out one long line behind it for hanging clothes and a flapper to go over their camp fire, that he planned to stay awhile. She decided she might as well make things home like. “Well, mule,” she said. “I guess your work be done for awhile. Ain’t nothing worse than an old fool who thinks he’s got a smelling dog.”
They spent the rest of their evening setting up camp, gathering firewood, preparing their dinner. Their days had been growing rapidly longer, each morning gaining another seven minutes of daylight, each evening folding a little more reluctantly into the sky. At six in the morning, the sun was already marching brightly across the horizon and they went out to do their first day of digging.
Their soil sampling while moving up the river had given Etta Mae the practice she needed for earnestly washing her pan for gold. She dug deep into the thick black mix of mud and sand, picking out all the larger rocks and pebbles, then adding just the right amount of water and tilting it so that when some of the liquid splashed out, so did some of the lighter stuff. She rolled the pan gently in her hands, watching the twirl of the water curl round and round, carrying the sludge and light, coarse sand in a watery fist, listening to the soft tumble of the stones underneath. She frowned in concentration.
Trapper Jim was working the sluice box. Far less restrained than Etta, he dug deeply int his Mutt Head spotted hole, tossing aside huge mounds of dirt before arriving at a layer of imbedded quartz and rocks that suited him. Tossing the rocks irrelevantly aside, he carefully examined the pieces of splintered quartz. “That’s where she be,” he said, rubbing his hands with satisfaction. Cheerfully he added a few shovelfuls of dirt from his depressing hole into the sluice box and began streaming water over it from a bucket.
Etta Mae watched his cheery disposition suspiciously. She walked over to his site and began curiously examining the quartz. It looked quite ordinary to her. “You’ve gone daft in the head. This place ain’t no different than any other spot we’ve tried.”
“She’s singing to me girly, she’s singing!” Said Trapper Jim happily. He added another small stream of water and watched the gravel tumble down with satisfaction. “I hear her just a-singing! You go take your pan now and fill her up. Get Mutt Head to find you a good spot. We’re gonna be eating gold nuggets for dinner.”
“I ain’t gonna let some dog tell me where to dig,” she grumbled. “And maybe I’d rather have a nice fresh fish for dinner. Maybe I should go fishing.”
“Suit yourself. I reckon those fish are getting mighty hungry after a whole winter of being trapped under ice. You could probably rustle up half a dozen greyling in the time it takes to whistle Dixie.”
“Hum,” she sniffed. Her eyes calculated the work involved in getting one of the fishing poles, laid gently to one side of the tent, tying on a home made mosquito and casting it. Her stomach was agreeable but her mind said, “gold, gold, gold.” She scooped up another pan of dirt and washed it.
Sometime in the early afternoon, Trapper Jim gave a loud whistle. “Twe-e-e-e-t!” Etta Mae looked up from her work, startled. Trapper Jim was dancing around, clutching the material of his pants at the thighs. “Gold! Milady, gold!”
A ball of adrenalin shot into her throat like a lightening flash. Even without seeing the evidence, she let out a yell. Trapper Jim’s excitement was contagious. She dashed over to the sluice box, her pan still clutched in her hands, but emptied now of its contents. There, sure enough, trapped in the ridges of the box, were two tiny nuggets, along with a scattering of placer. Trapper Jim brought out a small glass vial and carefully scooped the placer along with a little water. He added the two tiny nuggets. Magnified in the glass, they glinted seductively. He held the vial so it sparkled in the sun. “Twenty four carat raw,” he said giggling. “Ain’t nothing like pure.”
Carefully, he set the vial in a box that held other small cubicles of vials standing upright; empty and hopeful. Etta’s gaze traveled over to Mutt Head with a new fondness. Unconcerned with the excitement of his human companions, he was nosing through the new and tender grass alongside the bank in pursuit of a shrew. She drew up a shovelful of dirt just under the spot where Trapper Jim had been digging and filled her pan. Returning to the river, she washed it gently.
The instructions Trapper Jim had been giving her slowly filled her head. Rock it like a baby, back and forth, around and around, a small, rhythmic swirl. The murky water emptied, and she filled the pan again. The sludge was gone now and she could see the heavier black sand reluctantly lifting over the edge. Settle it. Settle it. Let the lighter stuff float over the top willingly. Listen to the stones thunking dully at the bottom. Listen and feel it vibrate under your hands, that deep, dark roll of pure gold. She heard it! Heavier, more sluggish than the rest, the roll of a nugget swished around at the bottom of the pan. Cautiously, she filled the pan with water once mote and rotated it. In the clear stream of water, she saw the gleam. She set the pan down. A little placer, but at the bottom, a nugget as thick as her index finger. She picked it out excitedly. “I found it!”
Etta splashed through the river edge, holding her piece high. “I found it! I found…” Her foot stumbled on a submerged log, its gnarly branches snapped off at the nub, but still protruding enough to snag the unaware. She fell, her prize rolling from her hand and tumbling into the river. “My gold!” She began desperately digging for it, her fingers clawing at the sandy bottom. She scarcely noticed when Trapper Jim placed his hand on her shoulder and lifted her out of the water. She looked back desperately as he led her back to the bank. “I found it. I had it. It was the size of my finger. No! Maybe a marble. Maybe bigger!”
“It’s gone now,” said Trapper Jim softly. “And just look what you’ve done to yourself. You’re all wet and will catch pneumonia if you don’t get out of them clothes quickly.”
“But I found gold.”
“I know you did. We found a little nesting place here. That gold’s been stacking up like clams in their beds. We’ll find more of it. You just go on now and change.”
She returned slowly to the tent, fighting back the tears that still managed to find a way to trickle down once she had a little privacy. “Here I am blubbering like a silly school girl,” she muttered to herself angrily. “It’s just a rock, for crying out loud. It’s just a stone. But I had it,” she protested back to her reasoning voice. “But I had it.”
Trapper Jim was right. Throughout the day, they continued filling their vials with placer and minute nuggets. Etta continued to mourn her lost nugget, but in the evening, just before they were ready to wrap up and call it a night, she found a slightly larger one. This time she exercised far more self-control. Sucking in her breath through her chattering teeth, she brought out the leather bag tied to her belt for this purpose. She smoothed the piece down to the bottom, not even daring to shake it, and squeezed the bag shut. As an extra precaution, she slid the bag into her pocket, again rolling it until she felt the small lump resting safely in a corner.
In the evening, after a plain dinner of jerky and rice, she showed it to him. “Why, that’s the biggest one we found all day!” Said Jim.
“I think my first one was bigger,” said Etta sadly.
“Why sure it was. Why, I’ll bet that nugget was nearly as big as a baseball.”
“It was. It was nearly as big as a baseball. It took both hands to carry it.”
“Pity, you lost it. I’ll bet you could have bought the Eiffel Tower with it.”
“I’ll bet I could have,” she agreed. “Maybe I could have bought all of Paris.”
The giant nugget was gone, but they still had hopes of replacing it. Over the next couple of weeks, a series of small nuggets clumped happily into their bags. Their provisions had run low. On their last day, they decided to go fishing and have a full meal before their journey home. After dinner, their bellies remarkably content after a stringent diet and long hours of manual labor, Trapper Jim brought out their sleeping bags and draped them over the log they used as a bench. He nuzzled Etta. “Ain’t it time to bring out the good stuff now?”
She giggled at the beard tickling her neck. “I reckon it is.”
She went into the tent, deliberately shuffling around noisily as though her reserve was in a puzzling, very mysterious place. She re-emerged triumphantly with a pint of Jack Daniels. “Is this what you was talking about?”
“Ha ha,” he said gleefully. “That it is. That’s my girl. That’s my Etta Mae.”
The snuggled into their sleeping bags, leaning their backs against the log while sharing their whiskey bourbon. The modest camp fire crackled and snapped in a night that no longer turned dark. “So,” said Trapper Jim, nudging Etta. “What you gonna do with your share of the gold now you’re rich? You gonna buy yourself some fancy new girl clothes? You gonna buy some new furniture? Get them lacy curtains you keep fretting about?
“No,” she answered firmly. “I’m gonna buy some buffalo.”
Trapper Jim held his breath in silent amazement. He finally released it in a single word. “Buffalo! What in tarnation’s name are you gonna do with buffalo?”
“Why, I’m gonna herd them. I’m gonna have a buffalo ranch.”
“How you going to do that? Are you gonna stand out there in the middle of the field, waving your hat and jumping up and down? You think them buffalo is going to pay attention?”
Etta Mae looked over at the mule who had remained patiently, although unhappily, accepting the double handful of oats each morning and grazing on whatever vegetation it could find. “I reckon you’re going to have to see a farmer about a mule.”
“We ain’t buying that mule!” Trapper Jim exploded. “And anyway, I don’t think the farmer be into selling it.”
“Etta, a mule won’t do for herding buffalo. You gotta have a cow pony. You ever been on a cow pony?”
“I been on a few horses.”
“I said a cow pony. They’s different.” He filled a pipe with the thin remains of their tobacco and puffed on it a few minutes. “Clint knows how to ride. I guess he’ll be giving you a few lessons. We can pay him for it.” He puffed at the pipe a little more, than handed it to Etta Mae. “Do you know what that means, Etta?” She shook her head. “Why it means, if we be buffalo ranchers, we be middle class. Fancy that. We is middle class.”
“That ain’t a bad thought,” said Etta agreeably.
By the time they’d climbed back down from their mountain journey and reached the small river delta community, Sophie’s pups had grown into scrambling little piglet sized pot bellies, ready to be found homes. She was happy to see Trapper Jim and Etta Mae, but still vexed over her unwanted family additions. “This one, this one and this one, I’ll keep,” she said, pointing to the curl-tailed, bristle haired puppies. “But those two are too much like their father. You’ve got to get rid of them for me.”
“We’ll take them off your hands,” agreed Etta swiftly. The Mutt Head identical was already wobbling up to her, his mournful eyes upturned as though asking why she had forsaken him. She nestled him under her arms and handed the other to Trapper Jim. “I’m expecting Clint will want that pup, but this one’s mine.”
While they sat around Sophie’s table, eating their first large meal in weeks, Etta Mae cradled the pup she held in her lap. Her fingers roved to the leather bag in her pocket and she pulled out a few nuggets, holding them close to the dog’s nose. The wet, puffy nostrils sniffed at the stones curiously, his face rolling into the same puzzled wrinkles as his father. He inhaled the scent then nuzzled her hand, settling peacefully into sleep. “Yep,” said Etta to herself, returning her treasure to the bag with a sigh of satisfaction. “I’ve got a gold smelling nose dog.”