Strike it Rich

by Jim Kjelgaard

This is a story about a man and his wife, and of how they, in their respective ways, made sure that their son would become a man.

For thirty years John Bascomb, the husband and father, was a prospector in America's Southwest. He didn't have to be a prospector; there are plenty of job opportunities in the Southwest, John Bascomb was a prospector because he could not be anything else. It was not in him to accept a menial job and work for years until he either achieved a position of responsibility or saved enough to start his own business. John Bascomb always had to see the silver star. There was no sense in playing for ten peanuts when, with a little luck, he might own the whole peanut ranch.

There is plenty of precedent for his desires and ambitions. The Southwest has yielded untold riches, and there are more waiting to be discovered. Furthermore, some of the wealth already uncovered has been found in unique fashions. A prospector threw a rock at an errant burro and, when he went to fetch it, found one of the richest mines of all time. Another prospector, wishing to fashion a front sight for his rifle, hammered a piece of quartz loose and found another rich mine.

The Southwest is brimming over with such tales, and John Bascomb believed them. When he was thirty-one he married a dark-haired, dark-eyed, nineteen-year-old girl who, up to that time, had been comfortably and even luxuriously supported by modestly successful parents. Marie Bascomb was no more versed in the realities of a harsh and practical world than a kitten is versed in swimming. She believed the stories brought to her by John Bascomb, who had already spent the larger part of twelve years on the desert. A hundred times he had been within inches of untold wealth.

In spite of the fact that every fifth man in the Southwest can tell similar stories, and they're all pretty much alike, Marie Bascomb still believed them. Doubtless the possibilities were romantic and exciting. A brave young girl, who had faith in the man of her choice, left a comfortable home to go with him and prove that faith. Later, in the best salons and most fashionable places, she could tell of her early married struggles.

Probably everything would have had a wonderful, happy ending if there had been anything except struggles. With his burros and grub-stake, John Bascomb continued to disappear into the desert. He continued to come out, always with a tale of the bonanza he had almost found, but never with the bonanza. By one means and another he managed to bring Marie a little money, and eighteen months after they were married she bore him a son.

Very soon after the birth of her son, Marie began to change. Eighteen months isn't a lifetime, but no doubt there were many occasions when it seemed like ten lifetimes to the young wife who waited. Little by little she became embittered.

Marie Bascomb suffered disillusionment, but, with no more faith in the dreams of her husband, she sought refuge in other dreams. Education was now the keynote of success. Marie Bascomb fiercely determined that her son would have such an education.

John Bascomb came in at intervals, bringing whatever he found of anything he could sell, and, because there was always a strained atmosphere between himself and Marie, he got out again at the earliest opportunity.

By that time, to Marie, anything he did was of secondary importance. She was engrossed in plans for her son, and nothing that would help bring those plans to fruition was too much. She worked, first as file clerk, then as stenographer and secretary, and out of her small salary she saved as much as she could. She was able to send her son to high school, and to see that he had the privileges of his day. Marie Bascomb continued to dream of the time when her son would take his place among men such as she met in the course of her work.

To John Bascomb, who had never been anything except a rugged individualist who could not conceive of anyone's playing for pennies when he might just as well gamble for a million dollars, the thought of his son being brought up in such a fashion pained him greatly. Going to dances and sipping sodas with the high school crowd seemed the behavior of a weakling.

When the boy was sixteen, John Bascomb came in from the desert and announced that he was going right out again. He further proclaimed that, since the boy was now old enough, he could go along and help. At first Marie Bascomb was fiercely opposed to the idea. Then she consented. John Bascomb had spent thirty years prowling the desert, and he never had found anything worth while. If the boy went along he would learn the futility of such a life.

On a hot morning in May, accompanied by two pack burros which carried their supplies, John Bascomb and his son went into the desert. The sun rose higher. The fierce desert heat, which is normally about 110 and can rise to 130, seethed around them.

They traveled for days, stopping briefly wherever John Bascomb thought there was a good place to dig prospect holes. The boy suffered but never complained. He followed his father, sharing his blankets and meager rations, helping him dig. He learned, even as do the wild burros which abound in that region, to drink when he needed water.

Then came real hardship. Far out, at some godforsaken place from which only John Bascomb knew the way back, they suddenly found themselves without water. At night they had over a gallon. With morning there was a hole in the canteen that had held it, and no water. John Bascomb appraised the situation. Then he struck farther into the desert.

Throughout the day John Bascomb, his son, and the two burros struggled across a burning hell. The boy's lips became cracked and dry. His tongue a twisted piece of rope; his eyes began to smart. Then they struck what John Bascomb had been looking for: a well-defined trail made by wild burros. A half hour later they were slaking their thirst in a pool used by the wild burros.

John Bascomb looked across at his son, who had followed him throughout the desert and had met every trial the desert imposed. He saw not a spoiled tea-sipper, but a lean, hard youngster who was capable of doing things.

"What do you think of the desert?" John Bascomb asked his son.

The boy faced him levelly. "You took it for thirty years."

"Yes," John Bascomb said. "And I guess, in a way, your mother took it for eighteen. She and I sort of went different ways, but maybe there's still time to bring our trails together. As for you—I sort of let your mother bring you up, and she's done a lot better job than I thought. I was still a little afraid...
"That is why before I said anything about the strike I made on the trip before this, and gave you all the things rich men's sons usually have, I wanted you to see for yourself a little of what went into making that strike."

John Bascomb put an arm around his son's shoulders. He said very gently, "We will go home now."