It was Saturday night, and Bubba’s Saloon in the mining camp of High Hopes was packed so tight the sides of the tent bulged. A rare sense of sobriety hung in the air. Everyone was drunk, of course, but nobody was gambling, vomiting, or gouging each other’s eyes.
A town meeting was in progress.
Bubba stood at the bar, a splintered plank supported by two pickle barrels taking up one end of a large canvas tent Bubba claimed was Stonewall Jackson’s field headquarters during the War Between the States. Bubba held a six-shooter by the barrel and rapped the handle against the wood.
“Order, everyone. Order!”
The crowd of 347 miners, the entire population of High Hopes, fell silent. Not a sound was heard except for a bit of spitting.
“As your duly elected mayor. . .” Bubba said.
“. . .thanks for the free round. It got my vote!” someone shouted from the back. Everyone laughed.
Bubba ignored him. “. . .as your duly elected mayor I hereby call this meeting to order. Ya’ll know why we’re here, so let’s get down to business. The railroad is scouting out a new route through the territory. If we can get the line to go through High Hopes, our town’s fortune will be made. It’ll bring more miners in, and maybe even a mining company. We can sell stuff to passengers too. Indian blankets and cactus jelly and crystals and such.”
“Them California slickers sure do like crystals,” an old prospector named Buzzard Jennings said. He’d been a Forty-Niner so he knew.
“Too bad we’re finding more crystals than gold,” another man grumbled.
“That’ll change if a mining company comes with machines,” Bubba said. “It took a lot of convincing to get the railroad man to make the trip down here tomorrow. We need to figure out how to get him to lay the line through here.”
Silence fell. No one even spat.
Truth was, there wasn’t much to recommend High Hopes. A flyspeck of a mining camp two day’s ride from any town worthy of the name, with only one gritty spring, no good ranchland, and barely enough gold to keep the men in beans and liquor.
Who’d want to build a railroad to this dusty stretch of nowhere?
“Put on a stage show?” Ebenezer suggested. He was the camp’s best fiddler.
Bubba shook his head. “The folks over at Lucky Strike are putting on a show, and they got women.”
The crowd sighed at the mention of women.
Indian Joe stood up, swathed in a colorful blanket. “Bribe him. White man greedy.”
“Well thanks, Indian Joe. That’s real kind. But we already spent all our gold dust bribing him to come.”
Indian Joe sat down.
“I got an idea,” someone shouted from the back. It was Kenyon Smith, a young fellow fresh from Texas seeking his fortune. Why he was seeking his fortune in High Hopes was anybody’s guess.
Bubba looked at him impatiently. “Well, out with it.”
“If we can convince him we’ve found the Mother Lode, he’ll jump at the chance to bring the railroad here.”
“The Mother Lode?” Buzzard Jennings cackled. “How in tarnation we supposed to get him thinking we got the Mother Lode?”
Kenyon grinned and held up his shotgun. “All we need is some hard work, and this.”
The next morning, everyone stood at the edge of town watching a distant plume of dust. Their faces were drawn and backs bent. None were suffering hangovers, or at least not most of them; they were worn out from a long night’s digging for a couple of handfuls of gold dust.
The cloud drew closer and a dark blot appeared, wavering in the heat. The stagecoach. Men straightened their hats and brushed the dust off their shirts. Some crossed their arms to hide stains they hadn’t been able to wash off. Bubba practiced his speech, mouthing the words silently to himself.
The stagecoach drew up in front of them. The stage driver nodded. The door opened.
Out stepped a man the like of which none of them had seen since they’d come to the territory. His suit was of the finest cloth. His new shoes gleamed in the desert sun. One gloved hand held an ivory-tipped cane. The other touched the brim of his bowler hat.
“Morning,” the railroad man said. “Shall we get started?”
Bubba babbled something incoherent and fainted. Kenyon took over.
“As you can see, sir, High Hopes ain’t pretty, but it’s got that name for a reason. Come examine our latest diggings.”
He led the railroad man into the gorge of the adjoining mountain. To either side were the dark openings of mines. They had to weave a winding path around deep wells sunk into the ground. The whole town followed, two men carrying Bubba.
Kenyon stopped at one mine. At the entrance sat a lantern and a shotgun. He struck a match, lit the lantern, and gestured for the man to follow him inside.
Kenyon raised the lantern. At the end of the mineshaft, the floor and walls glittered and sparkled like the desert sky on a moonless night.
The railroad man’s eyes sparkled too.
Gold! Every stone was embedded in gold!
The railroad man emerged from the mine and faced the expectant crowd. Bubba stared at him with wide eyes as he hung on the two miners.
“Gentlemen, I’m happy to report the new line will come through High Hopes!”
The crowd cheered. Bubba fainted again.
The crowd cheered all the way to town. They cheered as the stagecoach took the railroad man away to plan the new line. Once the stagecoach was out of sight, they cheered even more.
“Hip hip hooray for Kenyon Smith and his great idea!”
Kenyon Smith smiled.
“I came here to mine gold,” he said. “Never thought I’d blast it out of my shotgun.”
Sean McLachlan is the author of numerous novels and nonfiction books. He’s currently expanding two series: Toxic World (post-apocalyptic science fiction) and Trench Raiders (World War One action). He’s also dipped into Civil War fiction with the novel A Fine Likeness. You can find him at his Amazon page at http://www.amazon.com/Sean-McLachlan/e/B001H6MUQI/
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