The Further Adventures of one Gnat Bunker: (An American Tall Tale)

This is the 3rd entry in the Stories category: a freebie out of my back-catalogue of short pieces, most of them written several years ago as an undergraduate. You may read it for free, here, or share the link. But even as a rough draft, this is still my own work and I retain all legal copyright. Do not copy, or re-publish the text without express permission. ~ J. J. Griffing

    A tall stranger entered and sat down in a back corner, listening. But all eyes were glued on this tiny “Gnat” Bunker. Nat took another drink and began another tale:

This Little Mine of Mine
“Before I was a gambler, I amassed a pretty fortune in the mining business—did I tell you about it? Anyway, I was camping out west in the Rockies, over in Colorado, and I was doing a bit of prospecting. Anyway, one morning I awoke and found that I had no food for breakfast, so I took my rifle and went off shooting. I found deer tracks, and I followed them up the mountain and across the ridge. There I saw the largest mountain on God’s green and brown and coal-black earth. It was a marvel. It was so high that, after I shot and cooked my breakfast and lunch, and returned to look at it, I saw the sun approach from behind me, and, as it approached its zenith, something slowed it up. It was eleven o’clock for a whole hour as the sun tried to make it over that mountain. When at last it made it over and the afternoon got started, I moved my camp over to that mountain, and panned for gold that night in a river on its eastern side. Luck was with me, and the entire bottom of my pan was full of nuggets.
“I was elated. Following the stream up the mountain the next day, I found a large, pure vein in the rock seven thousand feet up. It was enough for all seven of the cities of Cibola, and an El Dorado besides. It was twenty-seven feet high, and wrapped all the way around the mountain.
“I lost no time, but set to work at once. I excavated a modest cavern in the first week, and could have bought England by the following month. I was still digging in those gilded halls when I realized that I had nowhere to put it. The gold under my bedroll was now as high as my house in the east, and my horse had to spend all day going to the edge to graze and drink, and all the following to return. I took a saddlebag into town every month for supplies, but it wasn’t going fast enough. I needed more help.
“I asked the local storekeeper if he knew anyone who wanted to dig a gold mine for twenty dollars a week, and he referred me to the saloon keeper. He helped more than I had even hoped, and sent me twenty able-bodied men to work the mine. To prove their strength, they each wrung my neck half off with their bare hands, tied my ankles with my own wrists, and threw me into a watering trough across town. Then the next would come over, untie me, and repeat the procedure. Once I had been assured of their strength, I led them to the mine, while they held their Winchesters at my back for protection.
“I set them all to work, at twenty dollars per week, plus their own diggings, and I was able to run a very profitable mining operation. The whole interior of the mountain was carved away, and the gold rush was on. More and more people came out to work at the hole, and my employees’ fame grew immensely. Two of them were German Dutchmen, and they staked their own claim after a week of employment, on a branch tunnel of my own mine which broke the surface further south. Employing men of their own, they made the south side of the mountain, where the vein was taller, to yield immense fortunes to Fort Knox and Washington on a biannual basis. I worked my end of the mine as well, and soon the entire mountain was hollow. One miner even reported seeing below him (upon breaking the surface in one of the higher tunnels, where the air was a little thinner and so was easier to see through), the sun as it approached the mountain for its daily ascent. That is how hollow my mountain was.
“I was working in my northern tunnels the following Tuesday, when the El Dorado de Cibola Mine’s first disaster struck. The two Germans, while perfecting a technique of lighting fires in the mine to melt out the gold, were caught in the molten metal and, sadly enough, perished. When I received the news, I ordered all miners in both mines to halt work and to come to the main entrance. All twenty thousand miners, at twenty dollars per week, gathered there. We were decked out in the finery of the king of El Dorado, covered from head to foot in gold dust, and we held a quiet, solemn funeral there, for our friends who were lost in the precious metal. The holes were renamed the Lost Dutchman Mine in their honor, and work was solemn and quiet for the rest of the week. Then the mountain’s heart was reached, and it was shining silver.
“With renewed hope, and a change from the repetition of cutting through solid gold all the time, we set out for the interior. Much gold and silver poured from the great mountain that year, and we had crews working day and night. Then one of our crews in a particularly deep shaft came to the bottom of the Golden Mountain, and struck the granite bedrock. The sound of iron on a real rock echoed throughout the mountain.
“The sound shook the stones, and the rumble set fear in every man’s heart. Though only one tenth of the planet’s motherlode of motherlodes had been mined, the vibrations threw men throughout my tunnels to the ground, or hurtling to their deaths down open shafts. The living, terrified, fled for the outer air, and congregated at the mine office I had erected on the site of my former camp. I met them all–nineteen thousand nine hundred eighty-seven of them. I tried to calm their fears, but none of them would return to work that week. So, as wealthy as we all were, I proposed that we all go east upon vacation. We rode the stage from town to the Missouri River, and boarded the ferry to St. Louis. So many men were headed out, however, that the first boatload of us had been down to New Orleans and back several times, and I had beaten Palantino before the last men got out. And when they got to St. Louis, I heard the terrible news.
“Two days after I had left the mine, they said, the sun had approached the mountain in its usual manner, and a ball of fire had burst from it and fallen into the upper regions of the mine. It melted the remaining gold in the peak, and the molten inferno rushed down into the earth. The gold and silver filled the lower tunnels, and left behind a thin stone crust of the mountain, which collapsed beneath its own weight in a roar of dust. The sun, having been spared the inconvenience of climbing the mountain, now continued onward, and never waited on a mountain again. The ruin fell further, and the roar of falling rock mingled with the surge of molten gold, as the torrent added to itself all the way down. The fireball at the gilded river’s head then struck the bedrock, and it burst, as a Midas’ share of the Lost Dutchman flowed into the yawning fissure. Another jet spewed forth from the old mine entrance, consuming the mine office in flames, and burning the forest all around. One man was so close to the flood that his shoe, removed for the treatment of a blister, was engulfed by its outermost end. He fished the boot, smoldering, from the cooling metal on the end of a stick, and though he poured most of the gold from it, that boot never did fit so well afterward, and he had to buy a new pair in the town, now a little community called Denver. All that was left of the mountain was a tiny hillock known as Pike’s Peak, and that’s where Nat Bunker staked his claim.”

“That’s a mighty nice yarn you’ve spun there, Mr. Bunker,” said a voice from the back of the room. “And I know a man who is looking for you.”
“Who is he?” said Nat.
“He’s me,” said the other, and stood up. Here was a giant of a man, so tall that the ceiling cracked when he bumped his head on it. The crowds parted, and the two were left, facing each other–the first barely five feet tall, and the other nearing eight. The small-town bar had never seen anything like it, but here it was. A showdown.
“I am the toughest, the meanest, the strongest, the scrappiest, and the ornriest man in this part of the country. I can out-run, out-climb, out-kill, out-hunt, out-shoot, out-wrestle, out-kiss, out-spit, out-swear, out-jump, out-swim, out-chew, out-smoke, out-drink, and out-lie any man on either side of the Mississippi River! My name is Mike Fink, and I’m proud of it!” bellowed the newcomer. Nat Bunker quivered in his boots. Little did Nat know that Mike was already in his fifties, and was not as fearful as he used to be, alongside Davey Crockett and Old Stormalong. But he was still tough. Nat, mustering up his courage, returned to his poker-face, and replied.
“You never said out-boast, Mr. Fink,” said Nat, coolly.
“Fine, out-boast! There, I have said it. Now you make your legend, and I’ll make mine. Drinks for both on the loser.”
It was agreed, and Nat repeated the entire tale, for Mike’s benefit, of the rocky debut of six-suited decks, without omitting a single detail, and adding more besides. Mike Fink sat patiently until he was finished, and then asked:
“So the gold you was betting on was from the Lost Dutchman mine?”
“Yes, Mr. Fink. All of it was. And so was most of his, probably.”
With a grunt, Mike Fink rose and lifted the smaller man high over his head, smashing him through the ceiling as he did so. Mr. Bunker was then flung into the sky so hard that when he came down, he broke through the roof of the O’Leary barn in Chicago, upsetting a cow, who then upset a lantern, and started the Great Chicago Fire of which we read now. Barely escaping the roaring conflagration, he discovered a knot on his scalp, inflicted by a barn rafter on the way past. The pain died away at last after a month or so, but the welt was there to stay. So upon the advice of his surgeon, Nat had it removed, then used the last of his gold to pay to have it bronzed and shipped out to Wyoming. Devil’s Tower is there to this day.
When Nat died, in 1929, the stock market collapsed on the same October day. Much later, as his descendants perused his belongings, they found the claim ticket for the Lost Dutchman, then called the El Dorado de Cibola, as well as the gilded boot, a deck of playing cards which delt six suites, and the land deed for Devil’s Tower beside an old grey Tyro hat. As Mike Fink said as he left the saloon that day:
“No one mentioned telling legends. Just making them!”

Love it? Hate it? Know a lake I should throw it into, appropriately weighted of course? Want to read more? Leave your comments below!

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