Vargas hopped down off his horse and tied the reins to the saddle horn. He let the roan graze, confident he could retrieve her later. There would be little to spook her out here, and she would come back when he whistled.
Several cubes of sugar he carried in his pocket tended to do the trick. He had trained her to come when he whistled by giving her sugar every time. He had no prior experience with horses at all, but this worked. He had read somewhere that most all animals could be trained through their stomachs. Feed them something as a reward and you could convince them to do anything. It certainly seemed to work with this horse, he thought. She loved sugar.
The horse taken care of, Vargas ignored the big blue sky and stunning mountain scenery. He turned his attention to the ground. Most of the land near Wallisville had been staked, thus his ride several kilometers out of town. This chunk of land had not been staked. He checked at City Hall to make sure. He did not want to accidentally stumble upon someone else’s property and get shot. When he was certain this was unclaimed land, he paid the fee and staked it himself, hammering in markers every few meters.
There was so much gold lying on the ground! He had easily found a kilogram in chunks just by walking around and picking them up. A kilogram, or 2.2 pounds of gold! He had never had so much wealth in all his life.
Unfortunately, that seemed to be the low-hanging fruit. In an obvious example of the law of diminishing returns, he found fewer chunks with each visit. He spent two hours searching the ground for more chunks this morning before finally finding one. They were coming fewer and farther between now, he thought.
He held the nugget up in the sky, letting the sunlight catch the unpolished yellow metal. It was heavy for its size. He tried to figure up its value on the spot.
Gold was still measured in troy ounces, or in units of about 31 grams. The official rate of exchange on Epsilon was 40 credits per troy ounce. Or at least, that is what it was when the war began. Nobody on Halcyon knew the current rate. Vargas did not know, either. He had been too busy with other things to check on the price of gold during battle. But here on Halcyon, they stayed with the 40 credits exchange rate.
Vargas hefted the chunk, tossing it up in the air and catching it. He estimated this one to be about . . . two troy ounces, or 60 grams and then some. On the up side, he should get 100 credits for this piece. If his estimate was off, then it would be closer to 80 credits.
“Either way, not bad for a day’s work,” he said.
He whistled and the horse trotted up. Vargas reached into his pocket for sugar cubes and rewarded her, then he climbed on and headed back for town.
He rode to the house he and Ong shared. This was the one confiscated by the Navy that stood near City Hall. It did not have a stable for the horse, like most of the other small houses nearby. Most people used the community stable and corral on the edge of town, paying for the service. But, the house did have a hitching post out front and he tied the horse there, unwilling to let her roam free inside the city limits.
He walked in, tossing the gold chunk from hand to hand with a smile for Ong, who sat in the living room on a chair reading the paper.
She looked up from the Times-Picayne and said, “They arrested the Captain.”
Ong and Vargas discussed the situation for most of the afternoon. He read the newspaper story Ed Watson breathlessly reported on the front page. The Captain and all the crew were arrested immediately upon their arrival in Winthrop, and were still being detained.
Ultimately, they felt they had little choice. Duty required they try and do something for the Captain and the rest of the crew. Vargas gathered up all the gold he had collected and traipsed over to the General Store to have it assayed and converted to credit tokens.
The clerk, who also served as the assayer, weighed his chunks and determined Vargas had 38.2 troy ounces of gold, or 1.18 kilograms. Considering the weight of dirt still on the chunks and a fee for the assaying service, he offered 1,440 credits.
Vargas accepted the offer. Really, he had little choice. This was the only place in town that offered credit tokens for gold. And, the fellow seemed honest. He probably had to be, Vargas reasoned, or he would be run out of town on a rail.
Next they had to figure out how to get to Winthrop. They could ride together on Vargas’s horse, which was not an appealing thought since the trip was over 600 kilometers. They could buy Ong a horse of her own, but she had avoided getting on one and had no desire to sit in the saddle that long.
So Vargas went to the stables and sold his horse, earning another 50 credits for the couple. Then they bought tickets for the stagecoach, which was leaving in the morning.
Whereas the crew travelled to Winthrop in ease and luxury, arriving about six hours after leaving Wallisville, it took Vargas and Ong eleven days to traverse the same distance. The most they made in a day, Vargas figured, was 100 kilometers. Sometimes they would stop for the night while the sun was still high in the sky, if they were already in a town. Consequently, for several days they travelled less than 100 kilometers.
In addition, the road was not a straight shot. They had to go up and down winding mountain paths on occasion, and follow sometimes circuitous routes. One time they diverted several kilometers when the bridge over a river was out.
Finally, at long last, they came to Winthrop. Here, the streets were paved and the buildings were tall. It was by all measures a bustling metropolis, although one steeped in late 19th century technology.
The stagecoach stopped near a building under construction. They got out and took their bags, which the driver tossed down to them. He grinned and pointed at the wooden structure going up nearby.
“That’s our new train station. It’s going to put me out of business.”