Short Stories 366:328 — “Lonesome Charlie Johnstone’s Strange Boon,” by Jason Sharp

More than a couple of the stories in Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories touch on the gold rush, but I think this one, from Jason Sharp, struck me as the one that really took the gold rush and made it intrinsic to the tale. We meet a man, Charlie, who has finally had a bit of luck and found some gold, treating himself to a little celebration. Right off the bat, Sharp’s story makes it clear that the whole “community” around the gold seekers has formed to do one thing: take their gold. A haircut, a drink at the saloon, dinner, even a dance with a lady, it’s all got a price, and the price is artificially high, given the lack of options. And that’s where the crux of the narrative takes hold.

Charlie isn’t a particularly educated man, but he’s worked hard, he’s done everything he was told he’d need to do, and he’s finally gotten a bit ahead. But when the local dancing girl he’d like to share a dance with dismisses his offered gold as not enough and takes the opportunity to humiliate him in front of everyone, Charlie storms off back to his site to try to find some version of “enough.” Enough for the dance? Enough for respect? Enough to actually come out on top in a community determined to take whatever it can? It’s not clear—but he’s in the wrong frame of mind, doesn’t take care of himself, and would likely have died except for discovering something, something that bonds to him and changes him, and puts him in a unique position for vengeance.

This isn’t by any means a heroic story, though given the way everyone around the gold miners is trying to separate them from their hard-won profit, there are few-to-no innocents involved. So when Charlie demands a cut of the gold, respect, and that dance he’s owed—and threatens to use his new abilities otherwise—he’s by no means a good guy, but at the same time I found myself invested in him at least breaking up the unfair systems around him. Sharp doesn’t allow such a clean and neat ending (and the story is better for it), instead ending the tale in a further position of unsteady—and likely bloody—comeuppance still to come.

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