(This story is rife with profanity. Given the nature of the story the swearwords will be left in and or written as, %*&! or similar. This incident is based on a true happening. The names have been changed to protect everyone!)
“What in the f.... is going on?” Tom Poley barked at his friend Bill Wells just a few feet to his right. Poley squinted in the direction of the road above the river where a beat-up farm truck had just squealed to a stop, backed up, paused and sped off.
Wells was thinking, “I hope that doesn’t have anything to do with us.” The two men were slogging along the river’s edge, making slow progress to an area they’d marked on a BLM map, an area that they thought might be worthy of taking a gold claim out on. They still had a ways to go.
The soggy ground sucked at their drab-green rubber boots. Both men, young and fit, labored, loaded with mining equipment: pans, classifiers, a couple of different small sluices and several buckets. Rain alternately misted and poured. It was March and cold. No wind, but to their right the swollen
roared on its way to the Pacific─as loud as any wind. Umpqua River
Poley stopped. “Hey, let’s take a test pan here, so we can rest. I’m so f....’n cold and numb I can’t feel my legs.”
Wells grimaced, but remained quiet. He set his small sluice down, adjusted his cap and nearly lost his footing as an ear deafening blast vibrated the air.
“Get on the ground, on your bellies!” A shotgun armed man shouted with the gun pointed at them. “What the %*&! do you think you are doing on this claim?”
Wells didn’t hesitate, but did exactly as the excited man said. Poley sat down. He refused to turn facedown onto the mud and rocks. “Tom, do what he says. Get on your f....’n belly!
The gunman’s finger twitched noticeably on the shotgun’s trigger. Again Wells demanded his friend do what the man ordered. But instead of complying, he nonstop spewed obscenities with an occasional, “I’m not doing it! ... What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“You guys are going to jail, you’re felons! ... You’re breaking the law!” The man shouted these words over and over until he paused after he said, “You got guns?”
Wells shook his head no and out the side of a tight mouth, he ordered his friend, again, to shut up and do what the man said. “He’s got a gun pointed at us you f....’n idiot!”
“What’s you guys’s names?” They both barked out their names. Wells risked adding that they were on their way to a piece of BLM land on down the river; and that they were scouting out a potential claim site for his (Well’s) dad, Wayne Wells.
The gunman noticeably relaxed his grip on the shotgun. He lowered it and asked if Wells’ dad was the same Wells that worked at Box Ranil Inc. at Dillard.
Through clenched teeth, close to chattering, Wells said that he was. He turned his head to look up at the man, dragging his chin across soggy, long-leafed plants. He was soaked from throat to boots. Poley hadn’t moved from his sitting position. He nonstop mumbled f...., f...., while pulling at his wet jeans.
Wells glimpsed a cop car over the gunman’s shoulder, up at the road. The gunman had seen it as well. “My mom’s called the cops.” He motioned them to stand up. “Yeah, I know who your old man is.”
“Larry’s your dad, right.” Wells asked. The gunman relaxed even more, seeming to back off a little with the threats.
“Where’s your f....’n claim marker, if this is your claim? Poley yelled.
The claim owner swiveled his head, “Over there on that tree.” He shot the barrel of the gun up meaning they get up. He motioned them to walk ahead. “Underwater,” he pointed, dropping his voice in disappointment. “Son of a ...!”
“And how in hell,” Wells barked, “do you expect people to see that?”
Claim owner kept glancing over his shoulder. Wells thought he was expecting the cop. “Okay,” he finally said, “leave your stuff and let’s go.” He stepped to the side meaning they lead.
“I’m not leaving my coat,” Poley objected.
“Got a gun in there?”
“No, the keys to my truck!”
The gunman waved them back off while he patted down the coat and searched the pockets. “Here,” he threw the coat to Poley.
“We got expensive gear here. F...! You have no right ...”
“Tom, shut up. He’s got a gun on us man!” Wells snarled threw clinched teeth, noticing again the guy was moving his finger on the trigger. “Tom’s goin’ get us shot,” he said to himself.
Finally, seemingly with no reason, the man relaxed, smiled, albeit awkwardly, and told them to relax and go ahead and pan here, just for the day, and this one time only. “I’ll go on up and take care of this cop business.”
Poley and Wells exchanged questioning glances. They shook hands all around. “Maybe his change of heart came about by their dads knowing each other,” Wells thought. “Who knows!” What he did know is that they were not going to do any panning on this stretch of the river. The gunman left. Wells and Poley gathered up their supplies and began walking back to their rig.
Half way to the main road, the cop met them, coming down the steep trail. It flashed into Wells’ mind that the gunman was setting them up, for the cop to catch them panning on their claim.
He’ll never know. The cop searched their equipment, talked about no visible claim sign and told them, “Next time your on this part of the river make sure you’re fishing or swimming!”
And now, whenever the possibility of being shot at while on someone else’s claim makes its way into conversation, Wells and Poley have their own story to tell. And, they are often asked to tell it.