© Copyright 2018 by Kathryn Lynch
The Old Lady knew from seeing dead animals on the busy road that raccoons lived north and south of her property, but she had never seen one on her land.
So it was with some surprise, that after eight years she observed a lone raccoon wander up to the stray cat food dish outside her house, and begin to eat. Raccoons like to wash their food in water. No water had been provided, but a pond and stream were nearby. He came for food every day after that, neither bothering the cats, nor chasing the geese and ducks who gathered in the area to eat.
After two weeks, he began to hang around, seeming to prefer being a pet rather than a nocturnal wild animal. Soon, piles of poop marked the raccoon's favorite path from the woods to the food. The Old Lady stepped carefully when feeding, to avoid tracking it into her house or her car.
It was a warm sunny Summer afternoon. The Old Lady made preparations to take a nap in her lawn chair when a bright gleam caught her eye. Studying the light source, she was surprised to see that it came from a pile of raccoon droppings. Taking two sticks, she dug carefully until a gold colored rock lay exposed on the ground. She found two similar rocks in piles nearby.
The Old Lady washed the rocks in the kitchen sink. Then she dried them and placed them in an old canning jar, storing it on a shelf. She spent the rest of the afternoon digging in the remainder of the raccoon poop outside, finding three more rocks.
She told no one about her trip to Medford. Her search led to a shabby looking strip mall with a sign outside which read simply "Assayer". The withered old man inside appeared to have been around since the 1849 Gold Rush. He studied her carefully, squinting through thick glasses, and placing his wrinkled face so close to hers that she could smell his cigarette breath rushing through yellowing teeth.
He studied the rocks, holding the jar up to the light. "Where did you get these?", he asked. The Old Lady had anticipated the question. "They were in my Dad's things when he died," she replied.
Using a small bit, the old man drilled into each rock, forming holes which neared the center of each one. Next, he placed a drop of nitric acid in each opening and waited. Nothing happened.
The Old Lady was embarrassed, upset that her own thinking had been so twisted, that it suggested to her the rocks had any value. The old man would laugh at her if she told him the truth. She would pay him for his services and give the stones to her granddaughter. Then she would put the whole thing behind her, berating herself for being so stupid. Some day she would laugh about it.
“They're gold nuggets. Would you like to sell them?" The old man explained that nitric acid did not react at all with gold, but produced a greenish bubbly substance in the presence of other minerals. Using a small scale, he calculated the weight of the nuggets at 5 and 1/2 ounces.
The market value of gold that day was $948.60 an ounce. In a state of shock, the Old Lady left the Assayer's office with an empty jar and a check for $5,217.30.
Back home, she researched gold on the internet, learning that 80% of California gold was estimated to still be underground. From time to time, rivers and streams washed out a few nuggets which travelled a distance from the source in the prevailing currents. Gold panners usually found these nuggets, but the underground veins remained largely undiscovered. There were presently no machines or methods to accurately pinpoint their locations, though many fly-by-nighters had become wealthy selling phony "gold finders".
The Old Lady reasoned that the raccoon had ingested the nuggets where he drank water. She had no idea why the animal swallowed the rocks, but she was determined to find any gold which rested on the bottom of the stream which traversed her property.
Early the next morning wearing her rubber boots, she set out with a shovel, a gold pan, and a plastic bag. The going was tough. Her access to the stream was impeded by blackberries, rotting tree roots, and puddles of standing water. Clouds of mosquitoes rose up when disturbed, buzzing her about the face. She began to sweat.
Finally reaching the stream, the Old Lady scooped up rocks from the bottom at intervals of about 12 inches. Progress was slow. From time to time her foothold gave way and she fell into the tangled weeds at the water's edge. It was a hot, windless day. The mosquitoes were relentless. By noon she had trolled about half the stream without success. Age and infirmities forced her to rest for an hour before completing the job. The Old Lady prided herself on finishing the task at hand, so after a rest she began again.
By 5:00 p.m., she was done. She emerged from the woods bathed in sweat, scratched and bitten all over, soaking wet, covered with mud, discouraged and disgusted. Most of all she was exhausted. She had not located a single nugget.
The Old Lady had never before been focused on money. She was disturbed by the thought that her internal greed had compelled her to risk having a heart attack in order to possess a few gold nuggets. She needed to calm down, relax, and go back to her normal living-on-Social-Security life.
The raccoon still came two or three times a day to eat. Once in a while, the Old Lady found another nugget which she placed in the jar. As the Summer grew warmer, she expected him to move on, but he continued to hang around. She grew fond of him--naming him Rodney. In time he took treats directly from her hand with his delicate paws, losing all fear of her presence.
One afternoon as the Old Lady rested in her lawn chair, she noticed some movement behind Rodney as he made his way to the food. Four small kits followed closely behind the raccoon, obviously their mother. She had been mistaken and she would have to rename her furry friend. In the end, she called the raccoon, Mother Lode.
The kits grew quickly, chattering and following their mother everywhere. Soon piles of raccoon poop accumulated in large quantities around the feeding area. Once a week the Old Lady used her two stick technique to look for nuggets. She was rewarded often.
The following Spring the Old Lady travelled to San Francisco. She carried with her 14 baggies, each containing approximately 5 ounces of gold nuggets. She knew that selling more than two bags in any one place would later require her to pay taxes on the sale because the transaction had exceeded $10,000.00. The irony and basic unfairness of being liable for taxes on a product which she had dug out of animal excrement did not escape her. She would have none of it.
It took her nearly a week to sell all of the gold nuggets. As she headed North, the Old Lady carried with her $71,000.00 in tax free checks.
She drove carefully for she did not want to kill or injure any raccoons who might enter the road.Epilogue: The Old Lady took a trip around the world. Her friends at the Senior Center wondered aloud how she had managed to save that much money from her Social Security check. She didn't tell them, fearing that they would believe she had descended into madness.
The questions of why the raccoons ingested the gold nuggets or where they found them were never answered. They moved on with the new Summer, and the Old Lady missed them all.
They never returned.