For a few minutes there was a lot of milling around as the crew launched the lifeboats and sorted out those who couldn’t swim. Those who thought they could make it themselves stripped off their excess clothing and boots, dove into the river and paddled for shore. The boat sank even lower in the water.
Will, who couldn’t swim, climbed into a lifeboat with a number of others and the crew shoved them off. Two men grabbed the oars and rowed furiously, trying to get far away from a possible explosion and the suction of the ship going down. The swimmers, likely aware of the same dangers, distanced themselves as fast as they were able.
A few minutes later Will looked back from the lifeboat and saw that fellow who’d listened to his conversation with the Skipper dash across the deck. “Hey, there’s one man still aboard,” he told the fellows who were manning the oars on his boat.
One of them was a stoker, who looked back and said, “What’s he doing anyway?” They saw the man disappear into one of the cabins. “Skipper said to leave everything.”
“He’ll have to get his self into the river – and he’d better do it soon,” the other oarsman muttered. “She’ll be going down any minute. None of the boats can risk getting close to her now to pick him up.”
“Look, here he comes now,” someone said and they all turned to watch as the last man threw himself into the water. He was trying to swim, but floundering badly. The men in the boat gasped as the fellow was sucked under the water. They held their breaths waiting for him to surface again, and were horrified when he didn’t.
“The poor guy never had a chance,” someone said. “Why did he wait so long? Why didn’t he get into a lifeboat if he couldn’t swim?”
Several men in the lifeboat nodded in agreement, others shook their heads sadly. Then they all turned their faces toward shore.
The prospectors, finally all safe on shore except for that one, were picked up the next morning by another steamer heading down the Mississippi. It was crowded; they had to all sit on the deck in the hot sun. But they were thankful to be alive.
A few days later Will was at an eating place in New Orleans having his dinner when in walked the skipper of the sunken ship. He waved at Skipper to come join him.
Skipper clapped Will on the back and settled himself on a chair beside the prospector. “So how are you making out, Old Timer? Are you able to get enough together for your passage to California?” He nodded to the waiter, who brought him a steaming mug of coffee.
“Well, I did carry a few nuggets on me so’s I’d have something handy if I needed it. Good thing, too; now I can afford this meal.” He chuckled, then added soberly, “When I got here I sent a telegraph to my family about the disaster – ’course they’d read in the newspaper about the ship sinking and were right glad to hear I’d survived. They’ve passed the hat ‘mongst them and are sending me enough for my ticket and grubstake. Soon as it gets here, I’ll be off. Unless I change my mind, that is.”
Skipper took a careful sip from the tin mug in front of him. “Yeah, something like this sure makes a person think. I’m so thankful I only lost one passenger. Could have been much worse.” He was quiet a moment, then added, “And I guess that was his own fault after all.”
“Oh? For staying behind so long?”
“No, that wasn’t his problem. I heard that when the searchers dragged his body from the river, they found bags of gold dust tied around his waist. That’s what pulled him down.”
Will’s eyes bulged. “Well, I’ll be hog-tied an’ muck-raked!” He remembered the man thrashing around in the water, and how strange it had seemed when he went straight down.
He rubbed his jaw with his thumb. “Guess that explains it. Wasn’t willing to leave his gold behind.”
“Hmph!” Skipper grunted in disgust. “I know for a fact he never brought those bags on board. It took him so much longer getting away from the ship because while you fellows were heading for shore, he was going through all your trunks and helping himself to your gold.”
Will stared at the Skipper for a moment while that truth sank in. “Well, I’ll be swallowed by a whale, spat out and hung up to dry! Risked his life to steal other men’s gold – and never lived to spend an ounce of it.”
“Guess he thought he’d make it somehow,” the skipper replied in a grave tone. “Probably never crossed his mind that wet gold dust is heavy. I wonder what the Lord said to him when he got to those pearly gates?”
Will shook his head. “Now that’s what you call FOOL’S gold.”
This is the type of writing I really enjoy: taking an actual incident and weaving it into a fiction story. I read about this sad account in the April 1970 edition of “Our Daily Bread.”