When you said you were a prospector, I laughed. I liked the image and, so, once, there lived….
You, gap-toothed old man, with trousers slung from baggy braces, crouched in a shallow stream. Swishing and swishing your pan in clear water. I imagined you playing the harmonica by the camp-fire, shoulder to shoulder with others who still saw gold in their dreams. I was beside you sometimes. Our backs to the cold, we drank moonshine and stirred a pot of beans. Eating from the common stock and sharing the bounty. The only thing we had to fear was the judgment of the townsfolk. And we didn’t care about that.
Oh yes, I had the whole book written – our mangy horses and fever-speckled winters, gold nuggets as big as lima beans, the snake bites we might need to tend. Our friends were the dipsomaniac doctor for digging out bullets, the good-time girls in the saloon, the bartender sliding us bourbon in the dark days. And in four hundred pages we’d find it, or wouldn’t, and really it wouldn’t matter either way. Because we’d have been good guys – flawed, dream-chasers – but good guys nonetheless.
You see, that’s the thing with me. I’ll take the smallest sequence of words and imagine the whole story. And that story – that story about crazy folk with a penchant for living – that wasn’t the story at all. Because, once, there lived…
A prospector who was an explosives expert – all spark-eyed and dangerous. You rode into town alone with a set of serious drilling equipment and a box packed tight with gelignite. You’d already done a full geological survey and my role was simply to show you to the rock face. As you lit the fuse I had a moment of clarity but it was far too late to make it into the daylight. In the clearing smoke, the thrumming air, you saw the rich seam of it. You mined deep and hard until the roof started to threaten. I think my ear drums had blown. I think there was hot gold dust in my eyes. I think, before I could get to my feet, the rocks were tumbling. I wasn’t going to make it out unscathed. I didn’t. You’d already mounted and ridden off with your saddlebags gleaming. Really not, so not, the story I’d written… No camaraderie. No laughs round the campfire. No good guys at all.
The prospector is scoping out a new range of hills. The storytelling friend is still telling stories. It doesn’t do them very much good but old habits die hard.