“Where are we now, Skipper?” asked Will, an old prospector on his way back to the gold rush in the West. Mindful of the lonely months ahead, he felt like talking and was glad to find the boat’s skipper standing alone on deck.
“See those two piles of stones up on the hillside and the big cross beside them?” Skipper pointed toward the left riverbank. “They mark a cemetery and when we see those, we’re close to the Louisiana border. Have you never been down the Mississippi before?”
“Nope. Grew up in Ohio and headed west by wagon train. Gold fever hit me somewhere along the way and I’ve spent most of my life panning the small streams in the Sierra mountains. Spent the winter visiting my family in St Louis, now I’m headed back to California. Thought I’d try going by Panama this time but I likely won’t ever see these waters again.”
“Had much success panning for gold?” Skipper asked. He was eying another passenger who wandered by right then and paused to lean against the railing.
Will’s gaze followed the captain’s as he watched the other gent. The man seemed to be studying the swirling waters below. Will wondered what was going through the passenger’s mind. Homesick maybe?
Then he turned back to the skipper. “I’ve found my share of gold – and spent most of it, too. I still have enough with me to pay my fare and buy another stake when I get to California. I hope to find a lot more yet before I die. I gather a lot of the fellows here are in the same straits: enough left to get back and stake themselves when they arrive. And big dreams.”
Skipper tugged at his ear. “Well, I wish you all luck. It’ll be good for my business if this gold rush pays off.” His eyes twinkled as he added, “Sometimes I get a touch of gold fever myself. But my wife threatens to dose me with sulphur and molasses whenever I bring up the subject. You know how a woman is: feet planted in her own garden. My Pearl won’t be parted from her home and family to sit for months in a log cabin in some lonesome valley.”
Will contemplated the drifting clouds overhead, thinking of the family he was leaving behind, the faces he may never see again. “Well, you know, that’s not such a bad thing, neither. Being near your kinfolk is worth something – maybe even more than gold.” He watched a pair of gulls swoop down over the water. “To each his own, I guess.”
Skipper laughed heartily and slapped Will on the back. “You’re right there. Now I’d better go join our pilot. Sun’s going down, the mist is starting to rise on the river. There are a few rocks and a wreck or two lurking in the waters ahead we want to dodge.” The Skipper turned and headed across the deck.
Will was going to say a few words to the fellow nearby, but he was walking away, too. Will had taken note of him earlier and wondered why the man wasn’t more sociable – but then, some folks weren’t. His privilege. To each his own. Will sat down on the deck, his back propped against a wall, to ponder life, love, and this mad pursuit of gold.
Fifteen minutes later there was a jolt and some scraping. Will froze when he heard the splintering sound from below. The paddle-wheeler had struck something! The ship’s horn sounded an alert and men poured out onto the deck from every quarter.
As Will jumped to his feet he felt the boat list to one side and settle lower in the water. Crew members dashed over to the lifeboats and started lowering them into the water. Well, I’ll be hog-tied, he thought. Now we’re gonna get a bath.
A booming voice came over the bullhorn. “This is your Skipper. A sunken wreck has punched a hole in our hull. We’re taking on water. Into the life boats, all those who can’t swim. Those who can, swim for shore. I know this is hard, but leave everything behind but your skin or you won’t make it.”
Passengers milled around as the crew launched the lifeboats. Those who thought they could make it themselves stripped off their excess clothing and boots, dove into the river and paddled for shore. The boat sank even lower in the water.
“I ain’t no seal,” Will told one crewman, who shoved him into a lifeboat with so many others the small boat sank low in the water.
“That’s all we can take, ” the lifeboat occupants shouted. The two crewmen manning the oars started for shore, hoping to escape any explosions and the suction of the ship going down. The swimmers, likely aware of the same dangers, distanced themselves as fast as they were able.
A few minutes later Will looked back from the lifeboat and saw that fellow who’d listened to his conversation with the Skipper. He was dashing across the deck. “Hey, there’s one man still aboard,” he told the crew members on his boat.
One of them, a stoker black with coal dust, watched the passenger disappear into one of the cabins. “What’s he doing anyway? Skipper said to leave everything. He’s fooling around too long.”
“He better know how to swim,” the other oarsman muttered. “And he’d better get started real soon ’cause she’ll be going down any minute. None of the boats can risk getting close to her now to pick him up.”
“Look, here he comes now,” someone said and they all turned to watch as the last man threw himself into the water. He was trying to swim, but floundering badly. The men in the boat gasped as the fellow was sucked under the water. They held their breaths waiting for him to surface again, and were horrified when he didn’t.
“The poor guy never had a chance,” someone said. “Why did he wait so long? Why didn’t he get into a lifeboat if he couldn’t swim?”
Several men in the lifeboat nodded in agreement, others shook their heads sadly. Then they all turned their faces toward shore.
The prospectors, except for that one, were picked up the next morning by another steamer heading down the Mississippi. They sat on the deck in the hot sun and there wasn’t much wiggle room, but they were thankful to be alive.
A few days later Will was at an eating place in New Orleans having his dinner when the skipper of the sunken ship walked in. He waved at Skipper to come join him.
Skipper clapped Will on the back and settled himself on a chair beside the prospector. “So how are you making out, Old Timer? Are you able to get enough together for your passage to California?” He nodded to the waiter, who brought him a steaming mug of coffee.
“Well, I did carry a few nuggets on me so’s I’d have something handy if I needed it. Good thing, too; now I can afford this meal.” He chuckled, then added soberly, “When I got here I sent a telegraph to my family about the disaster. I reckon they’d read in the newspaper about the ship sinking and be right glad to hear I survived. My brother wired back that they’ve passed the hat amongst them and are sending me enough for my ticket and grubstake. Soon as it gets here, I’ll be off. Unless I change my mind, that is.”
Skipper took a careful sip from the tin mug in front of him. “Yeah, something like this sure makes a person think. I’m so thankful I only lost one passenger. Could have been much worse.” He was quiet a moment, then added, “And I guess that was his own fault after all.”
“Oh? For staying behind so long?”
“No, that wasn’t his problem. I heard that when the searchers dragged his body from the river, they found bags of gold dust tied around his waist. That’s what pulled him down.”
Will’s eyes bulged. “Well, I’ll be hog-tied an’ muck-raked!” He remembered the man thrashing in the water and how strange it had seemed when he went straight down. He rubbed his jaw with his thumb. “Guess that explains it. Wasn’t willing to leave his gold behind.”
“Hmph!” Skipper grunted in disgust. “I know for a fact he never brought those bags on board. It took him so much longer getting away from the ship because while you fellows were heading for shore, he was going through all your trunks and helping himself to your gold.”
Will stared at the Skipper for a moment while that truth sank in. “Well, I’ll be swallowed by a whale, spat out and hung up to dry! Risked his life to steal other men’s gold – and never lived to spend an ounce of it.”
“Guess he thought he’d make it somehow,” the skipper replied in a grave tone. “Probably never crossed his mind that wet gold dust is heavy. I wonder what the Lord said to him when he got to those pearly gates?”
Will shook his head. “Now that’s what you call FOOL’S gold.”
I wrote this story in 2013 and posted it on my Christine Composes blog. This is the type of writing I really enjoy: taking an actual incident and wrapping it in fiction. I found the seed for this tale in the April 1970 edition of “Our Daily Bread.”