The Empty Land

In Europe, Pope Gregory the Great had died, in Ireland the Golden Age of scholarship was at its height, and on the Continent the Merovingian kings ruled much of what is now Germany and France.

In Southeast Asia the little kingdom of Champa, now called South Vietnam, was locked in a life-and-death struggle for its independence, with China and what is now North Vietnam.

In what was someday to be known as western Utah, a hungry coyote trotted across a barren slope.

The coyote had no awareness of history beyond the memory of where his food had been obtained in the past, nor had he any realization of the sequence of events he was soon to start in motion, a sequence that was to enrich several men and at least one woman, and was to bring sudden and violent death by bullet or blade to at least forty men.

All of that lay more than eleven hundred years in the future, but it was the coyote that began it.

The desert slope across which the coyote trotted was no different to the eye from a thousand other such slopes, falling steeply away to a boulder-strewn wash that remained dry except after the infrequent rains, when it might run six to eight feet deep.

The coyote remembered a chipmunk that lived some where near the crest. It was a very wily chipmunk, but the coyote was passing his way and might prove luckier than in the past.

Wise in the ways of coyotes, the chipmunk was alert to his coming and, not averse to a little game of tease and tag, waited until the coyote charged, then flipped his tail and ducked into a hole.

Whining with eagerness, the coyote dug at the hole, scattering sand and gravel behind him. Then his claws scraped on rock, uncovering a narrow crack, much too small for a coyote, but perfect for a chipmunk.

Frustrated and furious, the coyote gnawed at the edges of rock, breaking off a few brittle flakes; after that he trotted around behind, searching for another approach, but there was none. Finally the coyote gave up, and trotted off, pausing only occasionally for a backward glance.

Two months later it rained. The earth was still loose where the coyote had dug, and the trickle of water off the outcropping came eagerly upon it, filling the hole, then trickling over the edge and starting a tiny stream that hurried down the slope. The tiny stream carried along with it a small burden of silt and sand, mingled with some minute fragments from the rock.

Over the years rains pounded at the slope, and the wind worried it. A juniper seed fell in the crack in the rock, found some slight nourishment, and grew. Water from a late fall rain fell into the crack, a norther froze it, and the expanding ice split the crack still wider. The growing juniper, over the many years thickened its roots, pushing hard against the rock until it split, and the slab on the downhill side fell, turned over, and lay still.

The inner side of the slab was pressed tightly to the face of the slope. The exposed side, partly covered by the juniper roots, was seamed with bright streaks that ran like jagged lightening through the crumbling quartz.

It was in the fall of 1824 that a trapper crossing the arid slope made a brief pause in the juniper shade. Seated over the dying coals, nursing his cup of coffee, he idly sifted some rocks through his fingers. One fragment threw a tiny gleam into his eyes. Turning it in his fingers, he found the small rock was laced with a golden material.

The trapper had never seen gold except in the wedding ring of his mother, but he pocketed the nugget and forgot it when he moved off the next morning.

For nineteen years he carried it for a pocket piece, believing it brought him luck. In 1843 he tossed the nugget into a trunk and settled down to running a tavern in a small Missouri town. He married, built a livery stable at the tavern, and forgot the nugget in the trunk.

The trapper's tavern and livery stable brought him affluence, his wife brought him a son. In 1849 he supplied gold-seekers bound for California, but cholera swept the plains and he lost his wife and son.

Through all the years of success and sadness he remembered the land he had seen years before. He remembered a land unpeopled and still. He recalled the great red-walled canyons dotted with the deep green of cedar. The towering, snowclad hills, the dancing mirage of the desert, these he could not forget.

Finally he sold the tavern and the stable. He was a man growing old, but a man still strong, and a man who knew where his heart was. He might make his final stand on some lonely hill like an old bull, harried by wolves.

The trapper was camped on the Sweetwater before he mentioned the nugget to anyone. With him were four good men, but the one he talked to was young Dick Felton. Felton was the kind of young man he would have wished his son to be, a strong, fine man of courage and principle. It was Felton to whom he showed the nugget now.

"No question about it." Felton was positive, and he knew about such things. "That's gold. You locate that claim and you will have nothing to worry about."

The trapper tossed the nugget in his palm. "I will tell you boys where it is, and you can share and share alike. All I want from this country is what it is giving me now."

"It has been many years," said Felton. "Are you sure you can remember?"

"For a mountain man it is like walking to the corner store. Once you have been there, you can go back."

But the trapper did not live to see the place a second time. He was off on the flank of his party looking for game. He found an antelope, and the Utes found him. He got off one shot and went down fighting and calling them names in their own tongue. The warriors knew him, so they did not strip or mutilate the body.

A week later they lost Downey to another Ute raid, but Felton, Cohan, and Zeller went on their way to the trapper's mountain.

Early in April Zeller took two pans from a bench on the inside bend of a wash, and both showed color. One fragment was rough, indicating it had come no great distance.

"I've got a feeling," Felton said that night in camp.

"Yah, idt looks goodt."

Cohan shrugged. "We've taken rough samples before."

It was noon when they found the place. A ragged gully dropped half a mile down a slope into a wash, and Zeller showed them a pan. In the bottom were a dozen fragments, some of fair size, and all showing color. A second pan was even better.

They were cautious men who had learned the hard way. At daybreak the next day they worked up the gully, every pan showing good color. Shortly before noon Felton suggested a break, and he seated himself on a slab of rock in the shade of a gnarled and ancient cedar. He propped his feet against a rock and lit his pipe.

He smoked the pipe through, and then leaned over to knock out his pipe, and there it was. A chunk of rock literally seamed with gold.