Big Jim’s Secret


This story originally appeared on our now defunct 

Western fiction webzine The Big Adios.

Along with thousands of other hopeful or desperate men, Big Jim Montgomery trekked across the mountains forty years earlier at the height of the California gold rush, before staking his claim and setting up camp near Longridge in the spring of 1850. He never discovered the big seams that made a few others very wealthy but occasionally an odd small nugget or tiny scraps gave him encouragement to dig deeper and deeper into the hillside, as well as panning the stream running across his land and down through the forest.

In those days he was a giant of a man who often took the side of the underdog, he couldn’t abide bullies and dished out his own version of justice from time to time. He never wanted or sought permanent company, happy to live and work alone in the mountains. Every few months he would wander into town calling at the assay office to exchange a little of his spoils for cash. After that the same routine was followed each time. First stop was the bath house, taking great comfort in a tub of hot water after bathing in the ice cold mountain streams, next the barber shop to make him look human again. Clothing and boots next, time to replace the old smelly and worn out stuff. That left his favourite three things, the general store to order enough of whatever he needed to see him through to his next visit; the bar always followed, beer, whisky and a meal. After a good fillin, time for a bed for the night, there were always plenty of young women eager to take a handful of dollars in return for a good night of not too much sleeping. He made the most of these pleasures but never wanted the attachment of a wife or girlfriend.

Jim had his biggest find in the spring of 1873, an exceptional amount of rain and snow melt softened the ground exposing new potential just feet from his old workings. That had kept him busy ever since. As always Jim kept his secret to himself, storing his small pieces of treasure away, certain that the big find was just around the corner. By then Jim was approaching fifty, years of living and sleeping in tents or in his mine had given him a few health problems, he was much slower than ten or even five years earlier although almost as strong, but his mind was still sharp. He could sense trouble coming and occasionally had to deter thieves and low-lifes looking for a quick buck.

He knew the mountains better than any other man, no one was going to get the better of him. His treasure was safe, two wasters like Dan Waters and “Smiley” John Fort had no chance. Jim saw, heard or smelt them coming a good hour before they reached his land.

“You boys looking for me or just lost your way?” he called from somewhere up the hillside above them.

Smiley’s face changed, he had no idea where the voice came from, his first reaction was to draw and point his gun upwards. Staring straight into the bright midday sun, he could see nothing or no-one. A forty pound lump of rock, smashing into his head and shoulders knocked him to the ground as the sound of a bullet being fired at random echoed for a few seconds.

Dan jumped to the ground crouching behind a small outcrop of rock, “Now then mister, that was real unfriendly, I don’t like being made to feel unwelcome or angry and that’s what you just did.”

“Now, that’s too bad, ain’t it? You better get your buddy on his horse and get out while you can, there ain’t nothin’ here that belongs to you, you got five minutes or you get a new hole right between your eyes. You listenin’ fella?”

Smiley was still stretched out, he wouldn’t be moving for a while but Dan was quick, quicker than most, especially a middle-aged man. He crept into the trees below, running and circling around to where the rock had come from, but Jim, as you would expect, was long gone. Dan heard a sound behind him and fired off two shots as he turned, all he saw was a bird flapping madly from the bushes.

Dan’s instinct was to take him to where the bird had just been, moving slowly he parted the branches, only to be whipped across the face by a branch tied back by Jim. He picked himself up, cursed a number of times and carried on, creeping, crawling, running for what seemed like an age but that wasn’t the only trap waiting for the unsuspecting young thug. He never saw or heard Jim, each faltering step drew him closer and closer to the next trap. The end of this battle of stealth and craft came when a log the size of a deer, swinging in a rope cradle, hit him on the back of his head, his hat, gun and a boot flying in different directions.

Big Jim laughed and clapped his hands, his next task was simple enough, strap them over their saddles and head off towards the town.

Two hours or so later he had just made the Pinehurst road, flagged down a passing wagon and told the good folks to call at the sheriff’s office. He was going to leave Dan and Smiley at the crossroads half a mile further on, the sheriff could pick them up when he was ready. By the time the sheriff and a couple of deputies arrived the two were upside down, stripped and tied to a couple of trees, their clothes smouldering in the remains of a bonfire alongside.

Once again Jim had dealt out his own justice, just as he had a number of times before and since that time. He grew more cautious with age. His mine and property had traps of all kinds.

Big Jim relied on his mules, they were the only transport he had ever had, they carried all the provisions and equipment he needed and he treated them well. He’d bought his current mule (Mardy) eight years ago, but this one was the most stubborn, bad-tempered animal he had ever owned. He soon learned not to walk behind him as Mardy would kick out for no reason. Jim had received more than a few bites in his time as well. The only person who seemed to be able to get close to Mardy was Eaton, a five year old red haired lad who bribed the mule with a bite or two of an apple. Eaton could sit on him, pat him, anything where no-one else dared try.

Eaton’s folks had a new house on the edge of town, just off the Sacramento road and the youngster attended the small town school where his mother was a teacher.

By the time he was ten, he’d built a good friendship with Jim, mainly through his abilities with Mardy although there was nothing more than a chat as Jim either arrived or was leaving town. Jim always had words of advice for Eaton, “never tell anyone your secrets or they ain’t secrets no more” was one of his favourites.

One day Eaton saw Jim leave an attorney’s office. “What you doing in there Mr Montgomery?” Eaton asked.

“Now that would be tellin, ain’t that so? But I’ll tell you, just you mind, I’ve made my last will and testyment. Told ’em who’s to get my stuff when I’m gone. Now don’t you get spreading that round, d’ya hear?”

“I’ll tell you another thing, I always keep secrets backwards, so if I get drunk and talk too much, I don’t tell nobody nothin.”

Eaton didn’t understand but as promised, he kept Jim’s words to himself.

The following summer, Eaton was walking to school one morning when he heard a familiar sound, Mardy braying loudly, trotting along the street with two saddled horses following behind. As usual Eaton was munching an apple and handed the rest to the mule.

“What’s wrong Mardy, where’s Jim?” The mule just kept on eating and braying. Eaton led him down the street to a corral behind the livery stable, opening the gate for all three to enter. He ran home to tell his father, both of them running across to the sheriff.

“Something’s wrong sheriff, Mardy just came by with two horses but neither Jim nor the riders were with them.”

“‘Spect they just got fed up of waiting around or spooked by something, you know what horses, and that danged bad-tempered mule are like.”

Eaton’s father (Curly) said the mule wasn’t bridled but the horses had been hard ridden for a while “and Jim don’t take kindly to visitors or strangers, does he?”

After being harassed by the two for some time the sheriff gave in “Ok, come on then, let’s go take a look,  Curly, you and the lad better get saddled up and fetch the doc as well. Tell him to ride, he won’t get the wagon up there. Never know what we’ll find. Better be careful though, Big Jim does like setting traps, he’s likely got stuck in one.”

It was a good two hours ride to the mine. The picture that greeted them was a mix of smoke and dust billowing from the entrance with a mound of rocks barring the way inside. They would need more hands to clear the debris.

It took six men digging for two days before they had a breakthrough, they managed to clear enough rock to get inside. It seems that Dan and Smiley had unfinished business from years before and caught Jim unawares, maybe while he was asleep. The two of them were a mess, face down in the dust, blood everywhere, battered by rocks from behind, guns still in hands while Jim appeared to be smiling although he too was covered head to foot in his own blood and dust having taken the full force of the blast in his face and chest, there would have been no escape. The narrow trail of a burnt out fuse from Jim’s seat to the mountain of rubble led the sheriff to understand that Jim and the two “bandits” had been caught in Jim’s final, deadliest trap. They would get away with nothing.

couslandDavid Cousland, born 1950 in West Bromwich, England. Grew up in the industrial West Midlands. His father was a bespoke tailor, a craftsman but a partial colour-blindness problem kept David away from the same trade. A married man with two daughters and two grand-children. He was a life-long banker, specialising in card payments in later years. Sports and travel were and still are his two favourite activities. Lucky to have a number of great relatives in California. Writing was never even considered until mid 2012. Since then however a number of potential stories have and are being researched and worked on.

Weeks followed before the attorney met with various townsfolk including the sheriff to read out Jim’s will and hand over a hand drawn map with a couple of markings.

“I leave all my wealth, belongings and possessions to Eaton Hardy, the only person who ever showed me any kindness without asking for payment or something in return. Doc Watkins and Sheriff to take care of matters until Eaton is an appropriate age. This map will show the way. Signed, Jim Montgomery.”

“It’s legal” added the attorney, “signed and witnessed in my office two years since. I don’t know what the map is but I guess it’s his mine and land, and I know folks have been out there looking around and trying to get themselves killed.”

“Tomorrow, we’ll take a party out there and see what this means, don’t suppose there’s anything to find but we need to check, then we’ll seal the place up. You might just get to look after Mardy, kid.”

The same group of men plus Eaton and the attorney rode out again next morning. Despite following Jim’s map every inch, they found nothing.

While taking a break Eaton said “You’re looking in the wrong place, Jim told me he always had his secrets the other way round, up is down and left is right. He always told me that, in case he got drunk and talked too much.”

Within an hour they were back with two battered trunks, one lightweight but holding almost fourteen hundred dollars, the other needing two men to carry it. When they broke it open they discovered that forty years of gold mining and panning had been very worthwhile.

Big Jim’s secret was a secret no more.

~ fin ~