Word Count: 4400
At each strike of the pick-axe, the bracing timbers moaned as if they were living creatures. Two men battled against the solid rock, willing it to reveal the gold hidden in its depths. The dim light from the lantern cast their shadows as distorted, otherworldly beings working in the stygian depths of the mine.
A dog lay nearby, panting, its tongue lolling as if swinging in rhythm with the men.
Sharp fragments of rock mingled with dust for a brief moment before falling near sturdy boots.
“We need more shoring,” said George, resting against the handle of the pick-axe.
“The gold’s here. I can feel it,” said Ira.
Small rocks rained down and one of the timbers protested with a loud crack. The dog barked a warning.
Both men attacked the rock with greater urgency, determined to pry their bonanza from the mine.
George’s pick-axe lodged in a seam and he braced his foot against the wall, the tendons in his neck standing out as he strained to free the implement. Ira ignored his plight. The sharp clang of steel mingled with the moans of the timbers. The dog’s barks echoed off the walls.
A chunk of rock the size of a skillet fell from the wall, landing between the two men. A faint gleam emanated from within the rocky wall.
“Get the lantern,” ordered Ira as he ran work-calloused hands over the rough surface.
In the provided light, Ira and George saw gold-flecked quartz snaking through the rock. The dog barked a low “woof.”
“We did it!” yelled George, jubilantly tossing his hat in the air.
Ira ran a finger over the quartz, greed coursing through his veins with each heartbeat. His eyes narrowed and he peered sideways, avarice whispering George wasn’t worthy of sharing this treasure. A loose pebble caught his eye and he plucked it from the wall.
“Gimme one of those blasting caps,” Ira said, stuffing the nugget into his pocket.
“Maybe we should just keep chippin’ at it,” offered George.
George backed up a step from the cold glitter in his partner’s eyes.
Ira held out his hand and jerked his fingers in silent order.
Obeying, George retrieved one of the caps and the rest of the material from a nearby pack. Handing the cap and a match to Ira, George idly scratched behind the dog’s ear.
A nearby timber loudly cracked at the Herculean effort of holding up the rock. Rock rumbled as dust showered the men.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said George. “We oughta get outta here.” The dog barked in agreement.
Ira lit the fuse and retrieved his pick-axe. “Who’s we?” he asked through a hiss.
George’s eyes widened in surprise. The dog pressed against his leg, growling through bared teeth.
The rumbling grew louder and dust cascaded from the groaning timber.
Ira swung the pick-axe in a vicious arc, the steel piercing George’s skull. A trickle of rock cascaded as the timber groaned in protest. A dinner plate sized rock bounced off the dog’s back and the animal whimpered as its legs folded.
Daring a glance at the fuse, Ira turned tail for the entrance. The timber snapped from the crushing weight, spurring Ira on. A cloud of dust blinded him and he stumbled against the rocky wall, scraping his face and hands. The dust clogged his nose and mouth and he struggled for each breath as his lungs screamed for more.
A deafening blast shook the earth as Ira reached the entrance. He fell to his knees and panted for air, grateful for each lungful. Dragging a sleeve over his face, blood and sweat mingled with grime.
Slowly gaining his feet, Ira swayed on shaky legs as the rumbling from within the mine faded. He retrieved the nugget from his pocket and a smile crept its way across his face. This bonanza is mine.
A mule’s snort caught his ear and Ira protectively closed his fist around his treasure. Looking over his shoulder, Ira let out a slow breath to calm his jittery nerves. Just old Bessie.
Admiring his glittering prize, Ira turned it this way and that in the sun’s glare. He frowned as a dilemma surfaced. If I go to the assayer without George, there’ll be questions. One corner of his mouth twitched up as he schemed. I’ll show this off at the Bucket of Blood and tell everyone George was killed by a cave-in. He looked at his bloody sleeve. Everyone will say I was lucky to get out alive. I’ll tell them I’ve got to work my – our – claim because George would want me to. He nodded. Folks will believe me.
He tucked the nugget in his vest pocket and tacked the mule for the trek into town.
Arriving in town, Ira hitched the mule and adjusted his bloody, grime-covered shirt before stumbling into the Bucket of Blood.
Patrons took in his appearance and crowded around, everyone asking questions. Hoss took Ira’s arm and steered him to the bar. “Get him a drink,” Hoss told the bartender.
“What happened?” Hoss asked as Ira set the empty glass on the bar.
Ira wiped his mouth with the back of a hand and softly said, “Cave-in. I guess George didn’t get out of the way fast enough after setting off a blasting cap.” He downed another shot and softly said, “I should’ve been with him instead of chipping away at rock we’d already brought out.”
“You can’t blame yourself for an accident,” said Ronald, a foreman for the Yellow Jacket.
“He was a good man,” Ira whispered
“Everyone knows there’s risks in mining,” said Ronald.
Adam strode into the saloon and took in the crowd around Ira. He shoved his way to his brother and Ira and asked “What’s going on?”
“Mine collapse,” said Cosmo as he poured more whiskey into Ira’s glass.
Adam leaned against the bar and asked, “Did you have any bracing in there?”
“We had some timbers for support, but nothin’ too fancy,” said Ira.
“Why didn’t you use Deidesheimer’s honeycombs?” asked Adam.
“It was just George and me, Adam. We couldn’t afford that.”
“We’ve got some lumbermen in need of work,” said Adam. “I’ll have them cut Ponderosa timber. With Deidesheimer’s bracing in place, this won’t happen again.”
The other men nodded and murmured in agreement.
“That’s generous of you, but I can’t pay you for . . . .”
“Don’t worry about payment,” said Adam.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Ira.
“I’ll come out and take some measurements so I can figure the timber requirements,” said Adam.
Concern colored Ira’s eyes and he said, “I can’t let you do that, Adam. Your pa would dog me to the gates of hell if something happened. Besides, I don’t want to be a bother to you.”
Adam cocked an eyebrow but squeezed Ira’s shoulder in reassurance. “It’s never a bother to help a neighbor.”
Ira took another drink then plucked the nugget from his pocket. He asked Adam, “You think this is worth anything?”
Men crowded around, craning their necks for a look at what could possibly represent the next bonanza.
A yell of, “Stage coach!” drifted in from the street. Whit, the stage manager, removed himself from the crowd and headed out to greet any newcomers.
Hoss patted Ira’s back and said, “I sure am sorry about George. Adam, I’ll see if Pa’s on the stage.”
Adam nodded without taking his eyes from the nugget. Sure is a shame George died when they’d finally found the vein. They’ve worked that claim for nearly three years without success.
“We oughta take up a collection,” Ronald said loudly. “For the timber and other supplies.”
A cheer rose from the crowd and money was pulled from pockets and tossed into a hat.
Ira smiled his gratitude as he accepted the offerings. Money and gold. I’m gonna be as rich as the Cartwrights. “Gimme another,” he told Cosmo. Ira lifted his glass high and said, “To George, the best partner a man ever had!”
A cacophony of, “Hear, hear!” echoed in the saloon as everyone drank a toast to George.
Ira stuffed his pockets with money and said, “When I strike it rich, the drinks will be on me!”
Adam watched Ira over the rim of his glass. How’d Ira get all that blood on his clothes and face if he was outside the mine?
“I’ll come out and take those measurements,” Adam said to Ira.
Ira nodded, slapped Adam against the shoulder, and then shoved his way through the crowd and into the street. He nodded at Ben and Hoss before heading to the assayer’s office.
Hoss pushed through the saloon’s batwing doors, followed by his father and a newcomer. Heads swiveled to take in the stranger, a man dressed in black, a cape held closed by a silver cross in the form used by men in a Masonic order.
“This here’s Pa’s friend, Paschal Randolph.”
Men nodded politely in way of greeting.
Adam left the bar to greet his father’s friend.
“Paschal, this is my eldest son, Adam. Adam, Paschal is an old friend from my sailing days.”
Adam shook the man’s hand and said, “Welcome to Virginia City.”
Paschal nodded in greeting and took in the crowd. His brow creased and he said, “There’s been a terrible accident.”
Ronald set his glass down on the bar and said, “Ira’s partner died today. How’d you know?”
Someone yelled out, “Hoss told him.”
“That’s not so,” said Paschal. “I am blessed, or perhaps cursed, with the ability to speak to the dead.”
A few of the men gathered around in curiosity while others crossed themselves and muttered prayers for protection.
Ben said, “Paschal is a medium.”
Adam cocked an eyebrow in skepticism. People who claim to speak with the dead are more interested in fleecing the living.
“What’s my mother got to say?” asked Cosmo through a snort. Men leaning against the bar snickered.
“Sir, I’m not a performing monkey, obeying commands. However, a demonstration may change your mind.” He unfastened his cape and gestured to Cosmo. “Come, join me at a table.”
“There’s no need for that,” said Ben. “You don’t have to prove anything.”
“It’s no trouble, my friend. Those who don’t believe simply choose to close their minds to the psychic connections around us.”
Cosmo, Paschal, and Ben sat down at a table with four chairs.
“Would a fourth be so kind as to join us?” asked Paschal.
Hoss took a step but Adam gripped his arm to stop him. A half-smile turned up one corner of Adam’s mouth and Hoss smiled back and nodded. Adam crossed to the table and joined the others.
“Let us join hands,” said Paschal.
Cosmo wiped his hands on his apron before taking hold of Adam to his left and Paschal to his right. Paschal closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. The rest of the saloon watched in expectation.
A few minutes passed, the only sounds the scuff of a boot against the floor, a cough, and fingernails scratching scalp.
“You charge too much for the swill you serve. I didn’t raise you to cheat an honest man out of his money. Your father would be ashamed of the watered-down whiskey you sell in this place. He only bought quality. And when are you going to find a nice girl to settle down with? You promised me . . . .”
Paschal’s trance was broken when Cosmo let go of his hand. Men snickered at Cosmo’s reddening face.
“Any truth to that watered-down whiskey?” a man asked as he inspected the contents of his glass.
Cosmo harrumphed as he glared at the medium. “You have no call to accuse me of selling cheap whiskey. Besides, you don’t sound a thing like my mother.” He pointed a finger at Paschal’s face and said, “If you weren’t Ben’s friend . . . .”
“The dead speak through me,” Paschal said. “I don’t speak for them. Or in their voice.”
Ben took his friend’s arm and said, “If you’ll excuse us, Paschal is my guest.”
Cosmo nodded and retreated to the bar, followed by men asking where he obtained his whiskey.
Adam scratched behind an ear and said, “I’m going to head out to Ira’s mine. I promised I’d set a timber crew to cutting trees for shoring.”
Hoss gave Adam a friendly slap against the belly with the back of his hand and said, “I’ll go with you.”
Adam smiled and said to his father, “In that case, we’ll be home in time for supper.” He tugged the brim of his hat in silent good-bye before heading out.
Ben watched his sons leave then took Paschal’s elbow and steered him to the door.
Adam and Hoss pulled up their mounts and surveyed the camp before dismounting.
“Where do you suppose Ira is?” asked Hoss as he wiped sweat from his forehead with a red bandana.
Looking around, Adam toyed with a button on his shirt and shrugged. “Maybe he’s in the mine.”
Adam picked up a lantern and pulled a match from his coat pocket. He and Hoss exchanged a questioning glance before entering the mine.
Hoss recalled the fear in his chest when Adam and Philip Deidesheimer had been trapped by a cave-in. The other miners had done their best but gave up when no answering sounds were heard. I refused to believe Adam was dead. I pulled at those rocks until I could fit through to see for myself. He shivered from the cold and the memory.
“You suppose Ira tried to dig George out?” Hoss asked to break the silence.
Adam shrugged a shoulder. “Maybe.”
Both men shivered. Adam pulled his coat tighter. A sound caught their ears.
“Was that a . . . dog?” asked Hoss.
“Probably just a rock bouncing down,” said Adam.
They made their way to a wall of jumbled rock. Hoss reached to pull out a rock but Adam placed a hand on his arm. “Don’t. Might cause another collapse.”
Adam set the lantern down and a gleam caught his eye. He squatted and plucked a gold-flecked rock from the floor. In the bright light, it appeared to be good-quality gold. He picked up the lantern and stood, handing the rock to Hoss for inspection.
“Dadgum! Ira and George struck it after all this time.”
Adam took back the rock and tucked it into his pocket. “We ought to take this to the assayer for testing. If it’s gold, maybe George didn’t die in an accidental cave-in.”
“You can’t mean that,” said Hoss, his nose scrunched in disbelief.
“If Ira killed George, we’ve got to tell Roy.”
Adam lost his balance and swayed. Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm and kept him upright. “You all right?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
Adam ran a finger under his nose and then chuckled nervously. “It was as if a dog jumped up and rested its paws against me. A big dog.”
Hoss adjusted his hat and said, “You feeling all right? I’d expect something like that from brother Joe, but not you.”
“Let’s get out of here,” said Adam. “There’s nothing we can do for George.”
They briskly walked to the entrance and Adam blew out the flame before replacing the lantern where they’d found it.
Arriving home, Adam and Hoss hung their hats on the rack and removed their gunbelts.
“Good thing you boys are here,” said Ben. “Hop Sing’s been waiting supper on you two. He’s worried the pork roast will dry up.”
Hoss said, “I’ll let him know it won’t go to waste.”
Ben and Paschal chuckled. “Hop Sing needn’t worry that Hoss will miss a meal,” assured Ben.
Adam pulled the nugget from his pocket before laying his coat on the sideboard. He closed his fingers tightly around it before slowly walking to the table and taking his seat.
“What’s wrong?” asked Ben.
Adam met his father’s gaze and then looked to Paschal. He set the nugget in the middle of the table and leaned back.
Ben picked up the rock for closer examination. He held it up to the light. Closing one eye, he squinted through the other. Handing it to Paschal, he asked Adam, “Gold?”
“Maybe, Pa. The assayer hasn’t tested it.”
Ben leaned his elbows on the table, clasped his hands, and supported his chin with them. “What is it you don’t want to say?”
Adam sighed and reached for his water glass. After swallowing, he leaned forward and said, “Suppose Ira and George finally hit gold after working that mine for so long. And suppose Ira decided to end their partnership.” Adam held up a hand and said, “I’m not saying he came to that decision.” He took another sip of water. “But suppose he did. Creating a cave-in would be a mighty convenient way to dissolve their partnership.”
Disbelief colored Ben’s eyes. “We’ve known Ira and George for years. Those two have been through thick and thin together.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe Ira would murder George. Especially if they finally hit their bonanza.”
Paschal, listening intently to the conversation, ran a finger lightly over the rim of his water glass. “We could ask George.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Your performance this afternoon was entertaining but I hardly believe you speak with the dead.”
Ben cleared his throat and said, “Adam . . . .”
Paschal lifted his other hand and said, “It’s quite all right. Many are skeptical.” He leaned forward, both hands on the table. “I understand your hesitancy to believe my gift. However, I don’t perform parlor tricks for amusement.”
Adam snorted and asked, “Where did you receive this so-called gift?”
“I’m sorry, Paschal. Adam, Paschal is an old friend and a guest. I’d appreciate you treating him with respect.”
Paschal smiled at Ben and said, “It’s all right.” He took a sip from the glass and said, “Your father and I parted ways after serving together for four years. He remained on the European trade route and I was employed on the Mediterranean route. I grew weary of laboring for others and jumped ship in North Africa when I was nineteen. My money became scarce so I had to choose between becoming a beggar, a thief, or a laborer of some sort. A caravan transporting exotic goods arrived and I watched from stealth in the market place as the cargo was unloaded. However, my curiosity got the better of me and I was compelled to inspect the goods. The merchants indulged me and offered me a job of tending to their camels on the return trip. I eagerly accepted and made the journey to Persia. It was there I learned to communicate with the dead. After studying for a few years, I traveled to Europe for further study in England and France. Then I returned to this country to share what I’d learned. And provide a bridge between the living and the dead for people who wish to communicate with those who have passed.”
Hoss stood rooted in the kitchen doorway, tightly clutching the platter bearing the pork roast. A noise escaped his throat.
“I see our supper is ready,” said Ben with a smile.
Hop Sing nudged Hoss and brought the rest of the meal to the table. After ensuring all of the food was on the table, he bowed and retreated to his domain.
Adam tapped the nugget gleaming against the white tablecloth. He peered up at Paschal through his eyelashes and one corner of his mouth rose in a smile. “Perhaps you can bridge the veil between Ira and George.”
Hoss gulped nervously and Ben began to rebuke his eldest.
Paschal met Adam’s gaze and said, “It’d be my pleasure.”
In the morning, Adam saddled Sport and headed for the assayer’s office while Hoss hitched the buggy.
Arriving in Virginia City, Adam dismounted and reached into his pocket to confirm the rock was still there. He adjusted his hat and strode into the office. Presenting it to the assayer, he didn’t reveal its origin.
After examining it, the assayer said, “This is the same as what Ira brought in yesterday. Good quality.”
“Ira still in town?” asked Adam.
“He’s holding court at the Bucket of Blood,” answered the assayer. “You thinking of buying the mine now the hard work’s been done?” The assayer smiled as he asked the question.
Returning the smile, Adam said, “Depends if Ira’s willing to sell.” He tipped his hat and exited the office. His fingers closed tightly around the nugget and he made the short walk to Roy’s office.
Looking up from his desk, Roy said, “Why Adam. I hadn’t expected you in town. Bad news about George, isn’t it?”
Adam sat on the corner of Roy’s desk and placed the nugget in the sheriff’s hand. “Roy, if I said I could prove Ira killed George, would you believe me?”
“That’s a mighty strong accusation,” said Roy. “You better have solid proof. I ain’t about to let you go off half-cocked like you did that time you accused Bill Enders of killing Toby Barker.”
Adam crossed his arms over his chest and looked at the floor. He chewed on his lower lip as he thought. “It’s not solid proof, but it’ll be proof.”
Roy shook his head and stood, leaning over the desk to support his weight. “What is that supposed to mean? Folks expect me to solve crimes, not riddles.”
“Come over to the Bucket of Blood. You’ll have to see for yourself.”
“Adam, if this is another wild goose chase . . . .”
“It’s not,” Adam said as he clasped Roy’s shoulder.
The two men stepped outside as Hoss reined the horse to a stop.
“Morning, Ben. Hoss.”
“Mornin’, Roy,” answered Hoss as he tied the horse to the rail.
Ben guided his friend to the sheriff and said, “This is an old friend, Paschal Randolph. He’s a medium.”
Roy’s mustache practically twitched as he clasped his hands behind his back. “I won’t have anyone making a mockery of the law. Not even you, Ben.”
“No one’s mocking anything,” said Adam. “Let’s go on over to the Bucket of Blood.”
The five men entered the saloon and Roy went over to the bar while the others found a table.
“If it isn’t the man who talked to Cosmo’s mother,” said a burly miner. The saloon erupted into laughter as Cosmo’s face reddened.
Ira continued to hold court, showing off the nugget. A saloon girl leaned against him, flattering him with her rapt attention.
“I never thought we’d strike it.”
“Too bad George can’t share in it,” Adam said loudly.
Ira’s smile faded at the mention of his late partner’s name. He plucked his hat from his head and placed it over his heart. “I sure hope George found riches in Heaven.”
A chorus of “Amen,” followed.
“Why don’t you join us?” Adam asked. “Pa’d enjoy hearing about your lucky strike.”
Ira smiled and shook his head. He said, “There’s only four chairs at that table and they’re all occupied.”
“We’ll make room,” assured Hoss. He scooted over as Adam retrieved a chair from another table. He placed it next to Paschal.
“Come on and join us,” said Adam with a wave of his hand.
Ira gripped the nugget protectively and made his way over to the table. He took the empty seat and glanced nervously from face to face.
“May I see that nugget?” asked Ben, stretching forth a hand.
Reluctantly, Ira gently placed the nugget in Ben’s palm.
Ben turned it back and forth, admiring the way it gleamed in the light.
“Looks a lot like yours, Adam” said Ben.
“So it does,” said Adam as he placed his nugget on the table.
Before Ira could grab his treasure from Ben, Hoss snatched Ira’s hand in his beefy one. Panic in his eyes, Ira’s lips twitched as he tried to pull away from Hoss’ grip.
Paschal grabbed the other and said, “Please join hands.”
The Cartwrights obeyed the request. Ira struggled to free himself.
Closing his eyes and slowing his breathing, Paschal said in a stage whisper, “George. Tell us what happened.”
The saloon was so quiet the jangle of harnesses carried in from the street. Everyone leaned forward, awaiting George’s response. Roy shifted his weight and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Why?” Paschal asked. “Why did you do it?”
“I didn’t do nothin’!” said Ira in panic.
Hoss gripped the man’s hand tighter, grinding bones together.
“I’ve heard your lies,” Paschal said.
Ira shook his head. “I told the truth, George. Honest! The mine caved in! I couldn’t help you!”
“Tell them, Ira,” ordered Paschal. “Tell them what you did to me.”
Sobs shook Ira’s body as he struggled against his captors. Slick with sweat, his hand slid from Hoss’ and Ira yanked the other away from the medium.”
Paschal’s head snapped back and a howl burst forth from his parted lips. The sound began low and rose in pitch and volume much like a wolf’s.
Men pressed against the walls and bar as the eerie cry faded. Saloon girls held onto customers for protection.
Ira stumbled against an empty chair and yelled, “Make it go away!” He stretched forth his arms, waving his hands frantically. “Leave me be, Hell Dog!” Ira fell to the floor, his hands clutching his throat. Pleas for mercy squeaked from his mouth. His body jerked as his mouth opened wide for a final gasp of air and then he laid still, horror fading in his open eyes.
Roy rushed over to Ira and pressed an ear against the man’s chest. He then felt for a pulse. Slowly standing, he said, “He’s gone.”
Paschal hung his head, chest heaving, taking in deep breaths.
“What do you suppose killed him?” asked Hoss, a large hand at the base of his throat.
“A guilty conscience,” said Adam.
“Or plain old greed,” added Ben, touching the nugget.
Author’s Note: Paschal Randolph was a famous medium in the nineteenth century.