California Gold Country, 1850
The cave waited–as it had for thousands of years.
It had sheltered many in that time. Bears taking their winter sleep, humans with bows and spears, and now humans with guns. They were welcome to its coolness in summer and protection from winter storms. All it asked was to be left as it was found. Aside from the odd gnawed bone and ashes from fires, this wish was granted.
A new group was settling in. They tied their horses at the front and unloaded heavy saddlebags with greater-than-average enthusiasm.
“Look here, Jed,” a short, scrawny one said with evident glee. He pulled open a sack and ran his hands through the gold coins. “We’re all rich!”
“No kidding, Zack,” said a taller companion, with a bushy beard and worn boots. “As soon as I sober up after putting on the best drunk you’ve ever seen, I’m buying meself some new boots. Made from the finest leather in Sacramento.”
“You do that, Mick,” Jed replied. The muscles in his burly arms showed in sharp relief as he hefted a bag. “Might want to stash some of your share in the hills first, though.”
Mick waved a dismissive hand. “We kept our faces covered, and no one on the stage will care much about the bank’s gold. Don’t want to be seen with too much after that job we pulled. ”
“I still think we should have checked the passengers,” muttered Zack.
“Sure, and have one of them pull the mask from your ugly face. Then where would we be?” Mick shot back.
This was old news to the cave. It had seen many humans counting their riches. They were welcome to store them there. It already had plenty of its own gold.
The grumbling stopped as the three counted out their takings, dividing them into three piles. The scrawny one’s eyes kept straying to the piles of his confederates, but despite the whisky bottle being passed around, there was no lack of watchfulness. They all filled their bags again, looking as though they were prepared to sleep with them. The cave had seen such meetings enough times that it could predict what would happen. The little man would try to rob his friends that night. They would either catch him and kill him for it, or wake and follow with murder in their hearts.
It was all the same to the cave.
Mick drained the whisky bottle and held it up in empty salute. “Yer good health. I think I’ll be taking meself off while we still all have ours.”
Zack blinked and jumped to his feet. “Nah, you can’t do that,” he insisted. “What if there’s more gold stashed here? This is a perfect spot to divvy up the spoils. I bet someone else has done the same thing.” He grabbed three sticks of firewood. “Let’s go see.”
Actually, many had. Some of their wealth still lined obscure holes further in. But it belonged to the cave now. It shifted in displeasure, and a rumble ran through its rock walls.
Jed eyed the rock walls uneasily for a moment, but then he smiled as Zach lit the torches. “Or the cave could have gold of its own. It’s not called gold country for nothing, you know.”
They began exploring the cave’s depths, completely unconcerned about the cave’s outrage. They stopped, frustrated at a passage that was blocked by fallen rock.
“Damn,” Mick swore. “No way forward from here.”
Indeed there was not. The cave had seen to that.
“Another passage split off earlier,” Zack said. “Let’s go back and try that one.”
They picked their way in the torchlight through the twisted passages. “Wonder if anyone ever tried mining this cave,” Mick said. “It’s not too far from the American River. A cave like this–streams could have taken its gold and left it there. If that’s true, we could just go straight to the source.”
Jed broke into a grin. “If we found the gold ourselves, there’d be no need to be careful about spending it. You could have a new pair of boots for every day of the week, Mick.”
“And there’d be no reason to stop at boots,” Mick said. “Women, whisky…why, the world stands aside for a rich man. You got enough money–you can have anything you want.”
The three walked more slowly now, but with no less purpose, holding their torches close to the walls to search for the telltale gleam of riches. Zack stopped at a bright streak of white quartz and let out a low whistle. “See this dark vein running through here? Look how it reflects the light.”
“Well, now,” Mick said. “I might have to put off my drinkin’ after all. Who do we know that can get their hands on some black powder?”
Jed scratched his three-day beard. “I know a guy. It won’t be cheap, but it would be worth it.”
Mick’s face lit up. “It would indeed. Well done, Zack.”
The cave let them reach the intersection to the main passage before it rumbled again. The men’s curses soon turned into screams. The rock slide continued until they were completely buried. As an afterthought, the cave brought a small shower of rocks down to cover the saddlebags in front.
It had only one rule, after all. Even a cave had to have standards.