“The desire of gold is not for gold. It is for the means of freedom and benefit”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
I can’t remember the beginning. I was too young. But I later learned from my parents about the gold fever in the early 1850s. Now, over seventy years later, the rush is long gone, yet there is still a smaller number of hopefuls, panning the rivers and creeks in the hope of a good find.
After the draining of the Rogue River in South Oregon, and the subsequent flow of humanity of all ages, creeds and trades towards a newly found source of possible wealth, Ma, Pa, brother Jed and me, still too young to take my first steps, bundled into a wagon and headed West. The journey was hard. Jed caught the fever and never got to see Gold Beach, or as it was called in those day, Ellensburg. So there I was, almost one year old, trying to survive in a most inhospitable place, where the only interest of the adults was the gold. Even my parents, who were shopkeepers, trying to cash in on the rich pickings of the rough, mostly redneck miners, thought of little else other than where the latest find was, and who had the pickings. There was little time or interest in bringing up a snotty nosed kid.
When I look back it amazes me that I survived at all. I think it was partly due to my three closest friends, Jimmy Scot, Pete Larkey and Josh Cadam. From my earliest memories, we were always together, up to mischief, sharing our fights but most importantly of all, looking out for each other. I hardly saw my Ma and Pa. They built the local hardware store with their bare hands, worked all the hours that God gave them. Pa said to me one day, “Jesse Laprop, times are hard and you need to grow up quick. No time for fussing about.”
I was helping with the stocking of shelves from the age of five. By eight I was taking out deliveries to the miners. It was hard, dangerous work, but with the help of Jimmy, Pete and Josh we all somehow managed to survive. In fact we are all still alive today, in this year of 1926, seventy one years after that long wagon ride to Ellensburg.
There are so many tales that may interest the reader from those early days. Like the day that Pete Larkey told some local Indians that he was a sorcerer and could turn them into turnips at the snap of his fingers. Two of them ran off, but the other two tried to hang him by his feet from the nearest tree. Lucky for him, Jimmy Scot came along in the nick of time and cut him down. In fact, we always seemed to be lucky when Jimmy was with us. We nicknamed him Lucky and still use it to this day. Then there was the time that Josh Cadam disappeared. His skin was as black as the ace of spades, and he was taken as a runaway slave. It took three days for us to find him, again thanks to our mate, Lucky, who tracked him to a camp. With the help of a group of Gold Beach’s miners, we soon got him back and gave the slavers a hiding they would never forget. And so it was. We were like four peas in a pod. Jimmy was our lucky one, Pete was always up to mischief, telling tales. Josh needing the rest of us more than ever due to his black skin. And there was me. I was the strongest of us all, but I had one big problem. People thought that I was rather stupid because I was always getting my words mixed up. Nowadays I know that I have dyslexia, but in those days there was no such thing diagnosed. I was just the stupid one.
So, among all of the antics and tragedies of our tough childhood, in order to maintain this story in a shortened form, I will pick one of the events that happened in 1865, at a time when the gold fever was at its most prominent.
It was a day in late March, The snows had passed but the tracks were still wet and difficult. The cart was loaded with supplies for a group of miners and Ma called me with her usual harsh voice, “Jesse, take the cart to the mountain. Jake Stringer will be waiting there for you. Make sure he pays you. Take the boys with you and be quick about it. You might need them on these muddy roads. Tell them there is a dime for each of them.”
“But we won’t have time”, I tried to tell her.
“No buts. Just get the job done. We need to survive in this Godforsaken cesspit”
By, “The boys” of course she meant Jimmy, Pete and Josh. I was worried. The mountain was a good fifteen miles away. We would never make it back in time before dark. But to argue with Ma was hopeless. I rounded up the three and we took some blankets and candles just in case.
As expected, it was tough. The mud was so deep in places that we had to stop and dig ourselves out. Four ten year old boys, out on their own, with a cargo of coffee, beans and sugar, in a dangerous territory. Even in those days it was not normal.
We struggled through the long morning and well into the afternoon, reaching the foot of the mountain shortly before dark. There was no one waiting for us.
“Perhaps Jake knew we wouldn’t be here until late and will come first thing in the morning to collect the goods,” said Pete Larkey.
“Don’t talk such nonsense Pete,” I retorted. “We can’t stay here all night. We’ll freeze to death.”
“Now we won’t,” said Josh, smiling. “We have lucky Jimmy Scot with us.”
We all were a little nervous but began laughing. After all, it was a great adventure.
So we gathered the blankets, lit our candles and shared what little food we had with us. Jimmy decided that Jake wouldn’t miss a few beans from six sacks and promptly got a fire going.
Ma was absolutely perplexed. An angry Jake Stringer came barging through the front door of the hardware store at six o’clock. “Where the hell are my vittles? I was at the fountain all afternoon waiting for them to arrive. My men have nothing to eat.”
“It can’t be. I sent Jesse out with the cart just after sunup. He rounded up his friends in case he needed help with the muddy road, but they should have been there in two or three hours. They should have been back ages ago.”
Jake was cross, but also on hearing this a bit concerned. He liked the boys and had known them since they were toddlers.
“Where could they be?” he asked. “It will be dark soon.”
She left Pa to look after the store and spent the next two hours going to Jimmy’s Ma and Pa, and to those of Josh and Pete. Neither parents knew where their children were, and by now it was dark and starting to snow lightly.
“We need to set up a search party. They could be anywhere,” said Josh’s Ma.
Most of the night the four sets of parents and Jake Stringer and a couple of his men searched, all to no avail. At 4am in the morning they finally searched out Flying Eagle, an old Indian scout. Despite his drunken stupor they managed to get him on his feet and explained that the four ten year old boys were missing. He agreed to help them, and set about following their tracks, despite the darkness.
The tracks led away in the opposite direction to the fountain, and up the cattle track towards Top Mountain. It was just breaking daylight when they arrived at the foot of the mountain.
“I see the loaded cart,” shouted Pa Cadam, but with a worried look on his face said, “but I don’t see the boys”.
They all raced to the cart, afraid to see what they might find.
From under the cart peered eight bright eyes.
What on Earth is going on here?” shouted my Ma.
“You told us to deliver the goods to the mountain,” I replied sheepishly.
“I said Fountain, not Mountain,” screamed Ma Laprop.
“What a nonsense,” said Ma Larkey
These damned muddy tracks need a proper surface,” said Ma Cadam
“Well, at least we knew they would be safe with Jimmy,” said Ma Scot
Jake Stringer looked and the group and laughed so loud his hat fell off into the mud.