There wasn't much left of the town of Gold Ridge by the time Jim Nelson came riding in.
When he had left it five years earlier, Gold Ridge had been a small, but busy little town located along a rock outcrop on the northern bank of Sucker Creek.
A few hundred people had called the little town home when he had left, and a thousand red shirted miners had pitched their tents and had built a series of ramshackle shanties on the other side of the creek where they had been working away diligently to glean the golden wealth out of a nearby mountain.
The deep scar carved in the face of the mountain just across the creek with their picks, shovels and dynamite was still there, but the miners had all gone. No longer was the air filled with the busy tink of their metal tools striking stone in near precise succession and most of the shacks that remained across the creek either leaned precariously or had collapsed outright.
Riding down the single dusty avenue of the once prosperous town, Jim's vision went from side to side, taking its remnants in as his horse picked its way along through the dust. Here and there he recalled a few memories of no real importance from his past; the brand new boots he had purchased from one of the empty stores, a meal he had eaten in one of the now sagging boarding houses, the telegraph he had sent to a friend who had retreated back East in the former telegraph office that he recognized only due to the remnants of the wires that hung from the roof. It went on like that with the little tiny memories from his former life here. Though only a few years had passed, already the Oregon forest was doing it's best to take back what had once been its own.
High grass had grown up in the alleyways and between the cracks in the wooden boardwalks. Rich green moss began to carpet the shake roofs. Small Doug Fir saplings grew here and there in the road and once straight, well manicured fruit trees now grew into distorted shapes from neglect. Rail fences lay rotting and collapsed. Shattered store windows leered at him like teeth broken out in a saloon brawl.
Finally he stopped his horse in the middle of the street, set his hands upon the pommel of his saddle and took it all in with his eyes, not hardly believing what he saw. He gave a low whistle of disbelief over the change.
"Looks like everybody just moved on," he told his horse out loud.
The horse's ears suddenly pricked forward and the Cayuse let out a low knicker as if it had heard something.
From somewhere ahead of them, a dog barked.
Nelson lifted his eyes toward the sound of the animal and walked his horse in that direction.
Once he reached the large two story house with flaking white paint that had once served as the local stage station, he immediately found his path blocked by a small black and white bulldog that couldn't have weighed more than fifteen pounds wet. Despite his small size, the little dog was unafraid of him and came toward him and his horse and let out a warning to him with a low snarl followed by a short series of high pitched barks.
The rider grinned at him.
“You're awfully game for such a little one,” Nelson told the dog as he began to step down from the back of the Cayuse.
As soon as his foot touched the dusty road, the little black and white dog immediately bounded toward him and clamped his jaws around the base of Nelson's leg, grabbing the cuff of his dirty jeans from the top of his boot. Once his pant leg was loose, the little dog proceeded to tug at it violently, just about bowling Nelson off of his feet. Though not wanting to hurt the little fella, Nelson picked up his foot and proceeded to try to shake the dog's grip off of his pant leg, succeeding only in losing his own boot as he stood there jumping on one foot and shaking the other while the little black and white terror continued to hold its grip.
A woman's rich laughter filled Nelson's ears and for a moment he stopped hopping on the one leg, stood there a moment while the little dog still tugged at his pant leg and he looked toward the sound of the laughter.
An attractive woman with dark hair, likely a little over twenty years old, stood on the front porch of the crumbling stage station with a lever action rifle in one hand. Her other hand was covering her mouth, attempting to stifle an almost girlish giggle over his current predicament.
"Max won't hurt you," the woman told him and she called the small dog by name, where upon the little terror released his jaws from Nelson's pant leg and then sat obediently at the woman's feet.
"Try tellin' that to my boot," Nelson remarked with a bit of a grin and he picked it up, looked at the teeth marks in the leather and then slipped it back onto his stockinged foot.
"He's sure game for such a little sort of bulldog," he remarked. "I don't rightly know if I've ever seen such a little one that wasn't a pup."
"He's a Boston Terrier, not a bulldog," the woman said a bit flatly.
"Well, I ain't never been to Boston, so I reckon that's why I've never seen one of his kind before."
She smiled gently now and looked down at the dog.
"He's the only one of his kind out here, I think," she said.
"Only one I've seen," he said. "And I just come all the way from Wyoming."
He turned around in a circle and took in the remnants of the town.
"Things have sure changed since the last time I was here," he remarked. He looked toward the deep scar in the neighboring hillside. "Last I saw of it, I'll bet there must have a thousand men up there."
The woman frowned, looking a bit older than her years.
"The mines gave out and everyone moved away. That was three years ago. It's just me and Max here now."
have sure changed. How far to the next town? Me and this old horse have
been traveling for a long time. I'd like to get us both some grub."
"Bridgeview's about ten miles down the creek. Almost everyone else moved there." she said and he thought he detected a bit of contempt in her voice that didn't flatter her age or good looks.
"Well, I guess I better get ridin'," he said and he turned and gathered up the reins of the Cayuse.
"But I've got extra grain enough for your horse," she said suddenly as he began to step up into the stirrup. "And there's a room with a bed and I can cook. I could sure use the business."
He turned toward her.
"How much?" he asked.
"Six bits?" her voice wavered, as if she thought the price might be too high.
"If you don't mind me sayin', that's hardly a fair price".
The young woman's lips went thin and she looked down at the dog for a moment and then looked right back at Nelson. For the first time, he noticed her eyes, a deep blue-green that he reminded him of the nearby creek.
"Four bits," she offered a bit firmly.
"How about two dollars?"
"Two dollars!" she exclaimed. "Why that's more than I asked for the first time!"
I said, your first offer was hardly fair and the second one, well, if you
don't mind me sayin', it's like you was forcin' me to wear a gunny sack
over my head."
She smiled at him.
"That's very fair of you, Mister .... I'm afraid I don't know your name."
"My name is Jim, and my old pappy taught me that if I expected to be treated fairly, that I should always pay what something is worth," he told her.
She smiled and her mind seemed to drift a bit, he thought.
"My husband says the same thing," she said.
"Well, I'm glad you have a man about here with you," Nelson told her. "It wouldn't be right for a woman like yourself to be in this place alone. I'll be pleased to meet a fella who thinks that way."
The woman's eyes misted over.
"I meant ... that's what he used to say," she stammered. "My husband is dead. It's just me and Max here now."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
She instantly straightened and composed herself.
"It happened a long time ago and I've got Max here to protect me and to keep me company," she said.
ain't quite right," Nelson told her. "Just you and a little dog here, even
if he is game. Why didn't you move on with the rest of the folks who lived
here, if you don't mind me askin'?"
"I'll just say that I don't favor Bridgeview much," she told him. "Besides, everything I have is here and I'll weather it. Gold Ridge will bounce back one day, you'll see. And when it does, I'll still be here."
Nelson nodded, but knew that she was wrong. He had seen lots of towns in his travels that had been reduced from meccas of activity into skeletons of their former selves in only a short time, their prosperity often relying only on the undelivered promise of a little gold hidden beneath the soil of the neighboring hills or perhaps upon the speculators who swore that the railroad which never would come, was but around the next bend. None of them ever bounced back from their failure.
"There's a barn around the back with an empty stall," she told him suddenly. "And there's feed for your horse. Once you put your horse up, come inside and I'll have coffee ready."
woman turned and walked up onto the porch of the stage station. The little
dog continued to watch Nelson, his eyes big and his ears erect, until she
called him to her side and the two disappeared inside.
Nelson went back to the Cayuse and led him to the barn around the back. Though it was badly in need of paint and looked worse for the wear, it was dry inside and was well stocked with good, clean hay. A single bay horse with a white blaze pushed its head over the top of a stall, let out a low knicker and eyed him and the Cayuse suspiciously as he led him in.
you'll have some company now," he told the bay as he put the Cayuse into
the neighboring stall and began to remove his saddle from the horse's back.
He then forked a generous ration of hay to the horse and added a helping of grain to a small trough.
Out of habit, he heaved his heavy saddle over his shoulder, then thought better of it and simply hung it over a rail.
like there's anyone around to come in and steal it, is there?" he muttered
Nelson sat at a small table inside the kitchen of the stage station sipping coffee as the woman cooked. Though there was a large dinner table in the front room, the woman insisted that he sit in the kitchen instead and the two had made idle conversation where he had learned the woman's name was Kate and that she had come up to Gold Ridge from Yreka, California a few years before after she had married.
As the conversation was mostly one sided, Nelson figured that Kate did not often have company, as she had spent most of the time while she cooked talking to him at length while he mostly listened and simply nodded an occasional response. Mostly she talked at length at how busy Gold Ridge had once been and how it would be again and what her plans were when that came to pass.
Finally, just as she heaped his plate with a large helping of fried potatoes and boiled cabbage, she seemed to run out of things to say and sat down at the table herself and began to eat. For a long while the two ate in comfortable silence, until Jim finally broke the stillness.
looking for a man that used to live here in Gold Ridge," he said suddenly.
"A man by the name of Seth Nelson. He had a placer claim up here. Ever
hear of him?"
Kate immediately straightened up in her chair, quietly set her fork down and nervously smoothed the napkin on her lap with her hands. For a moment she didn't say anything and then finally answered him, her voice barely above a whisper.
"He's dead," she said.
Nelson blinked at her for a moment, feeling the shock of the finality of her words. His lips felt dry for a moment and he reached for the cup of coffee in front of him and drank from it.
Jim's mind reeled. He could not believe what she had just told him. Seth was a few years younger than he was and still very much a young man. Certainly he had not died of natural causes.
"Are you sure?" he asked her.
"He's buried at the cemetery up the road. I can show you his grave, if you like."
"I'd like to see it," he said, the reality of it all still not sinking in completely.
"What exactly did you want with Seth?"
"He's my brother," Nelson said, still turning it all over in his head.
"You look like him," she said. She smiled for a moment remembering, then turned her eyes downcast. "You have the same face."
"How did you know him?" he asked her, his head down.
"Seth was my husband."
He looked up at her.
"I didn't know he got married," he said flatly. "I never got word of it."
"Seth used to talk about you all the time, but he didn't know where you were. He wanted you here when we got married. He said you were his only family in the West."
Nelson nodded lightly and then looked back toward his plate, pushed it away from him and stood up. For a moment he looked around the room, then went to the window and looked out over the creek to the scarred hillside and to the falling down mining camp.
"Seth and I had a falling out over the claim we shared," he explained. "About seven years ago. We were working our fingers to the bone. All around us other miners were striking it rich, but all we seemed to find was blisters and I'd had enough of breaking my back for just a little bit of color. We were making just enough to barely get by and I told him that we were just wasting our time and that I was through. But Seth was a dreamer and he was convinced that if we just kept digging, that we'd hit pay-dirt eventually. I called him a damn fool and then one thing led to another and I tried to beat the foolishness out of him."
said you'd fought," she said.
"To tell you the truth, I thought I'd killed him. That's how far it went and I was so damned ashamed of myself for doing it that once I knew he was alright, I rode on.
Some brother I am, aren't I?"
"He didn't hold it against you," she told him.
He turned back toward her.
"No? I would have."
"No, he didn't. He knew that in your own way, that you were just trying to look out for him and that you were never too good at making your feelings known."
Nelson smiled lightly.
"He was right."
He turned back to the window and stared back at the scarred hillside. Outside, the summer wind stopped momentarily and for a moment he thought he caught a glimpse of a thin trail of white smoke coming from what was probably a small campfire hidden somewhere amongst the dense trees near the gouge in the face of the hill. Apparently, not everyone had given up on their claim yet.
"How did he die, Kate?"
"He was murdered."
There. She had said it.
This story from Oregon's Gold Rush first appeared in:
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Gold Ridge - A Western Novel