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A Long Time Gone
William was farther away from home than he had ever been and what’s more, he did not know his way back. The boy was twelve years old; even though his size suggested that he was no more than nine. For as long as William could remember, he had been an orphan. For the last two years, he had lived with a wealthy owner of a tavern, Mr. James Cromstead, who didn’t have a lot of time for taking care of children. William had been wandering around looking for something to do and this time he had wandered further than usual.
He had been searching for the last half hour or so when he came across an old, make-shift hut. Half curious, half afraid, he slowly approached it and knocked on the door, expecting it to be locked or even give way from the years of decay.
To his great surprise, the door swept open and there before his eyes was a wrinkly little old man. He wore raggedy old clothes and a hat with the top ripped through. His bright green eyes flashed in contrast to his dull graying hair. However, the most distinguishing feature of the old man was his leg. It stuck out at an awkward angle as though his knee joint had protruded through the end of his knee. He leaded on a crutch which looked as though it had been hand carved.
Giving William what must have been a feeble toothless smile, he motioned him to enter the hut and take a seat. William hesitated, but then did so, being very cautious, but at the same time, curious to know who this man was. He sat down and the man busied himself to warming up some coffee by the fireplace. As William waited, his instinct told him to leave, but for some reason, he couldn’t pull himself away from his seat.
Finally, the man turned from the fire and said, in a surprisingly high clear voice, “My name is Isaac.”
William just stared at him for a while before answering, “I’m William, William Cambell.”
“They sat there for a while longer not saying anything. Finally Isaac served them both coffee. “So, what are you doing here?” he asked, his voice a little lower this time.
William thought for a moment then replied, “I guess that I’m lost.”
“Lost is a matter of opinion,” said Isaac. “You can only be lost if you don’t want to be where you are. Where is it that you wanted to be?”
“Mr. Cromstead is expecting me home by six o’clock.”
“Cromstead did you say? That’s a…um…interesting name.” The old man sat there for a moment adding extra wrinkles to his forehead as he thought. “Um…six o’clock did you say?”
“Yes,” answered William with a puzzled expression.
“Well, I haven’t had a working watch for about fifteen years but I’m guessing that it’s just past seven.”
“Fifteen years,” the boy was brought out of his confusion. “You haven’t had a watch for fifteen years? How long have you lived in this place?”
“This Mr. Cromstead, how old is he?” asked Isaac.
“I think he just turned 67, why do you ask? asked William a little taken aback.
“Oh, no reason at all.” said Isaac although the wrinkles on his forehead had once again doubled. They waited again. “So do you really want to hear my story?” he asked. It’s a long one.”
“Oh yes, I very much enjoy stories.”
“Well, I think you are the one who ought hear it.” He cleared his throat. “It all started in 1848, when most people who live out here started their stories. I had heard about the infinite amount of gold that could be found in California. Like everyone else, I headed out here hoping to make my fortune. As was the case of most of the others, I got here too late. All the gold that was easy to find had been discovered and turned in. Also, like many others still hoping to make a fortune on gold, I staked out a claim on some land that I had purchased. There was a little land, about ten acres, on the side of the mountain. When I purchased the land, I had a feeling that I might find gold.”
“So did you ever find gold?” interrupted William.
“Hold your horses,” said Isaac. “I was getting there.”
“After searching the mountain and building a mine, I found almost nothing in eight years. One day, as I was clearing out a new tunnel in the mine, when I spotted a vein of shiny gold. As I hurried back to retrieve the proper tools for excavation but, the mine began to collapse. Before I had time to take more than a few steps, a great hail of boulders caught me and I found myself awakening several hours later with my left leg in intense pain, caught under the debris.”
“I was finally able to get my leg loose, but the passage to the gold had been almost completely covered and filled with the fallen wreckage. Somehow I managed to get out of the mine, but I came out empty-handed. My gold was buried inside that mine. I haven’t been in there since then.”
“Wow,” said William, who had been just about to slide off his chair with interest. “Mr. Cromstead told me there was hardly any gold left in the whole state of California.”
“He would say that wouldn’t he.” said Isaac with a half-hearted smile.
“What do you mean, do you know him?” questioned William.
“Well, I did know him, but I haven’t seen him in over twenty years. We used to be quite close, but he thought mining for gold was a waste of time. He was probably right; he was always right.”
“We got in a fight, much bigger than our normal arguments. I left and I’ve never seen him again.” As the old man paused, he had a lonely look in his eyes. After a while he said, “William, I think you should be the one to see my mine. It’s just around the turn of this mountain. I will take you there.” Isaac grabbed his crutch and stood up with a groan. William followed him out the door.
As the door closed behind them, Isaac stopped. “Did you hear that?” he asked William.
Suddenly two large men jumped out from the side of the house. One held a knife and the other a gun. “Thanks for the information, Old Man,” the first one said. Before William or Isaac had time to even think of what to do, two shots rang out.
William closed his eyes, bracing himself for death. He was going to be able to see his parents at last. But the shots never came. Slowly he opened his eyes. The two men were falling to the earth, dead and walking around the corner of the hut was James Cromstead.
“I thought it was agreed that you would be home by six o’clock, William Cambell.” said James with his strong, stern voice. Then he smiled and turned to Isaac. “I’m sorry little brother, I never should have said those things. If you ever knew how long I’ve wanted to come talk to you.”
“It is I that should be apologizing.” replied Isaac as he embraced his brother.
“You guys are brothers?” blurted William finally. James nodded. They laughed.
Litchfield Park, Arizona
Far Hills, New Jersey
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