The Golden Road
Joe was a hopeless dreamer who sought his fortune on the goldfields. He didn't seem to have the sense to work alongside the other diggers and pan the alluvial sand of the streams for that illusive bit of "colour". Nor did he work in a mineshaft where he might bring his dreams to fruition with a lucky strike of a lode or a reef. He did none of the usual things, but only fossicked in the mullock, that is, he picked over the tailings of the giant stone-crusher that removed almost all of the gold. Now and then he found a skerrick or two that, somehow, had been missed. This soon went on the meagre supply of food he bought in town and the hip-flask of cheap whisky he always carried. The only meat he ever had were the rabbits he shot with his old muzzle-loader.
At night, around the campfires, the diggers told tall tales and jokes and anything unusual was entertainment. Joe, the dreamer, was different from the hard-bitten tough diggers of the camp. He was often the butt of their jokes but it made no difference to him. He still talked about places far across the sea and he loved poetry and knew by heart "The Golden Journey to Samarkand." The diggers would urge him to recite it but only to poke fun at him and the unlikelihood that he would ever get to the distant land of his dreams. He took no exception to their banter but always spoke his poems with feeling.
"I'll get there one day," said Joe, to the raucous laughter of everyone.
"You'll never get to the gold of Samarkand, Joe. You'll never get away from these gold diggings, you'll die here, broke, drunk or crazy," said someone.
"He's all three, already," said another and the laughter burst out even louder.
The favourite campfire tales were the ghost stories. One evening, after someone had told one such tall tale, there was the usual call for Joe to recite. This time, though, another voice spoke out, "We've heard his pomes lots o' times. Have you got a story, Joe?"
Joe thought for a moment. "Yes, I've got one, a ghost story, and what's more, it's a true story."
A peal of laughter echoed around the diggings.
"Shut up! Shut up and let him tell it. Go on, Joe. Don't worry about them, just tell it."
"Believe it or not," said Joe slowly, to be sure nobody missed a word, "but I saw a ghost only a couple of hundred yards from here. I haven't seen the ghost since and I never want to see it again, ever, but it is still here."
Joe paused. Obviously he had caught their attention for the laughter and chatter had ceased.
"Go on, Joe," said someone.
"Tell us about it," said another.
"What happened?" from another.
Now everyone waited with bated breath, wondering what lies lay in Joe's true ghost story.
Joe began his tale, "You don't think much of my ways of scavenging for gold. What might surprise you, then, is that I was a miner and a damned good one. What might also surprise you is that I own a gold mine, right here, and I've got the claim to prove it. It's just over there. Check at the claims office if you doubt it."
Joe pointed to an area where there were a few old diggings in the side of a bank.
"So, you've got a useless claim in that old worked-out patch," said someone. "What's that got to do with your ghost story?"
"Everything," Joe replied, "everything. 'Coz it was in my mine that I saw a ghost. About a year ago, I used to work in that mine. I drove a fairly long level tunnel and eventually got to where there were some tiny flecks of gold. It looked good enough to make any miner work harder and I was no exception. I worked like a Trojan until suddenly it happened, or rather I ought to say, they happened. Within a couple on minutes I had two of the biggest shocks in my whole life. The first shock was of joy illimited. As I struck my pick into the face, for what must have been the millionth time, the rock crumbled away. There in the rubble, shining in the lamplight and on the face of the drive, too, was gold. They were only tiny nuggets but enough to show that a fortune lay in this strata I had just dug into. I stood there amazed at my luck. My dreams of travel to exotic places were no longer dreams but reality. And then came my second shock. This shock, though, was not of joy and pleasure but of fright and horror! Suddenly, from the rubble at my feet, from the very gold of my dreams, there arose a ghost. Not a ghost like under a white sheet that artists draw but a blood-curdling monster straight from Hell. I froze to the spot but when she, for the ghost was a horrid toothless old hag, wrapped her cold bony arms around my neck, I bolted. I tore myself free and stumbled out of the mine, with her screaming for me to come back. I stayed away from that mine for days. Eventually I went back but only to throw stones into the entrance to block it. So, that's my story. I own a haunted mine full of gold and I can't do a thing about it. You can believe it or not, but the gold is there as proof of what I'm saying."
"But nobody can get in to prove it one way or another," said someone.
"True enough, but one of these days someone will find a way to beat that ghost. That gold will be worth a fortune for some lucky devil. But at the present time it's mine and that's the way it's going to stay. Anyway, that's my story, a story without an ending."
For the next few days, Joe's ghost story was the talk of the diggings. Was he telling the truth or was it a fairy tale? Nobody could recall Joe ever lying and so the story began to be believed, or rather, not the part about the ghost, but the part about striking gold. The ghost was put down as a pink elephant hallucination caused by Joe having got drunk on his hooch whisky.
It seemed so easy to check Joe's story. Every miner wanted to roll away those stones blocking the entrance and have a look. Some even approached Joe with offers to buy the mine for a pittance of gold dust but Joe was adamant. He would not sell at any price.
"I will never let a living soul go into that mine, I couldn't do that to another human being. That's it and nothing will change my mind."
News of Joe's mine spread like wildfire. The miners that worked for the company that owned the crushing machine talked about it, too, and pretty soon the company directors heard about it. They immediately became interested in buying the mine provided it assayed ok. Someone pointed out that Joe would never sell his mine or even allow anyone to go into it, let alone do an assay. This was seen as an impasse until Tom, a bright spark of an engineer, came up with a possible way out.
"I know what to do. Don't talk about putting a man in the mine, use a machine. Joe will probably go along with that. Once we've got the mine we can do anything we like."
"A brilliant idea," said the manager, "the question is, how much is the mine worth. We need an assay before we can set a price. We'll have to talk him into allowing one. Tom, it's your idea, you go and see him."
Joe had listened to Tom's proposition and was now mulling it over with his hand under his chin like the famous "Thinker" statue.
"And no men will be working in the mine?" Joe asked.
"Just as I said, Joe, no human beings will do any actual mining although they will be operating the excavators. Here's your opportunity to get rid of your mine and make some easy money. What do you say?"
"Well, you make it sound alright. If I did sell I'd still want a fair price."
"Of course you'd get a fair price. But the obvious way to get a fair price is to have it assayed and then it's a third party telling us what it's worth."
"Ok, then, but how do you get the assay sample with the ghost in there."
Tom thought for a moment and said, "Joe, I appreciate you believe in ghosts but I'm not superstitious. I could collect the sample and you could come in as far as you risked it and keep a watch for me."
Joe rubbed his chin and thought about it for a few seconds, "Ok, I agree. Let's do it, now. Let's do it before I change my mind. It will only take a couple of minutes to clear the stones from the entrance."
Quickly they rolled away the stones. Joe then lit a carbide lamp and they entered the mine. The lamplight was bright and they moved quickly through the tunnel toward the face. About a yard from the face was a heap of rock. Joe's old wheelbarrow was there, too, half-full of rubble. A cavity in the roof above the wheelbarrow showed the source of the rubble.
"There's been a rock-fall. I'm not surprised, though, 'coz I never had a chance to shore up anything before the ghost came.
The rock-fall had blocked half of the tunnel and this made further progress to the face impossible. In the lamplight tiny flashes of yellow could be seen on the face and on the pile of diggings at its foot.
"They glitter like a swarm of fire-flies," said Joe, recalling a line of Tennyson.
Tom's eyes bulged, completely tantalised by the scene.
"Tom, if you reach over the rock-fall you ought to be able to get a handful, or two, for your sample."
Tom stretched hard to reach the glittering pile. The light shone on a nugget and Tom just managed to touch it.
"Wow! That's a good nugget. Grab it and let's get out of here quick, please," said Joe.
Clearly, he had the heebie-jeebies and was on the point of panic. Tom stretched a little harder and managed to grab the nugget.
Suddenly, the light beam went flashing everywhere. Joe had dropped the lamp and had run out of the mine. Tom slid back from the rubble pile, picked up the lamp and made his way outside.
"Are you alright, Joe," he asked.
"I am, now. Sorry about that but I felt a chill like her dead hands wrapping around my neck, again. I had to get out. Did you get your sample, Tom?"
"Yes, right here, it's a beauty alright," he said, holding up the nugget. Its golden flecks glittered in the bright sunshine.
Within a day, the assay report came through and it stated in glowing terms the quality of Joe's mine. That, along with Tom's description of a mine-face that glittered like fireflies, persuaded the company to make a very generous offer to Joe. Joe accepted the offer, "Maybe, by digging up the gold it will put that ghost to rest, so I'm glad to be rid of it."
The next day the company sent two miners into its newly-acquired mine. They quickly cleared away the rock-fall and within a few minutes had shovelled a wheelbarrow full of glittering rubble. While one miner dug into the face the other wheeled the barrow out of the mine and tipped it into the stone-crusher. As he wheeled his empty wheelbarrow back into the mine to get another load of ore, he was amazed to hear laughter. Had the ghost returned and assailed his workmate and then began gloating with maniacal laughter? He listened harder. That was not a ghost; that was his mate. He quickly made his way to the mine-face to find the other miner rolling on the ground and laughing hysterically.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
Somehow his mate managed to point toward the face and somehow to speak, "Look, there ain't no gold. Joe has salted this mine and the company has fallen for it. "
Within seconds there were two miners laughing uncontrollably.
Joe had been meticulous in planning the salting of the mine. This mine was a worthless thing he had bought from an old miner for the price of a few beers. His preparation of the mine was clever. He dug away a bit of the mine face to make a pile at its base. He then poured gunpowder and some iron pyrites down the muzzle of his shotgun. With the gun pointed at the rockface, and mere inches from it, he pulled the trigger. After he had fired a few such shots into the face, he sprinkled some gold dust on the pile of diggings. Golden flashes shone in his lamplight. His next step was to position his wheelbarrow about a yard or so away from the pile. He then dug into the roof above the barrow and some rocks fell into it and spilled over to partly block the shaft. Then Joe produced the one really valuable bit of gold he owned, a genuine nugget. This was his investment in this enterprise. He reached in over the top of the rocks that he had brought down, stretching his arm to full length. Carefully he set the nugget near the top of the pile below the mine-face. That nugget glittered invitingly! The last thing Joe needed to do was block the mine entrance with stones to stop anyone wandering in and finding what he had set up.
From that point on, it was play-acting. He learned a few poems and became Joe, the dreamer. Knowing that ghost stories were the campfire favourites, he only needed to wait for the right moment to tell his 'true' tale to set his plan into action. And, so, that's how he did it.
Not surprisingly, Joe had disappeared after the company had paid him. Shocked by the swindle, the manager called in the police to find him. They had no idea where to look for Joe had planned his escape as carefully as he had planned the salting of the mine. The diggers, though, reckoned he could be found on the Golden Road to Samarkand.