Sam Clevenger is an old curmudgeon, endlessly cranky and critical of those around him. He has liquidated his assets, his ranch and livestock, into gold bullion, worth about a million dollars by today’s figures. His “bank” is an old Dutch oven pot and no one knows the pot’s contents.
When Clevenger’s wife, Charlotte, falls ill with tuberculosis, Sam hopes moving to Washington Territory will improve her health. Sam is mean to everyone – even Jessie, the couple’s fifteen-year-old adopted daughter. He treats her like a ranch hand, and she resents it. But everyone has their limits, and Sam realizes that moving horses and mules through the Buckskin Mountains will be very difficult, more work than he and Jessie can manage, so he hires John Johnson, a bi-racial soldier just released from the U.S. Cavalry, and a handsome young man, Frank Willson, who’s eager to work.
The group has many adventures as they head from the Arizona Territory north. Several indigenous peoples are in the area and relations with various tribes are extremely tense. Hungry coyotes stalk the travelers and tensions rise high as the group must ferry the wagon and the animals across a tumultuous river. Despite the care the Clevenger’s take with the wagons, Charlotte has difficulty traveling over rough terrain and the biggest fear is she won’t last the trip.
Of course, where there are young vivacious people working together, romance is bound to grow. So, it is no surprise when a flirtation begins between Frank and Jessie blooms into something more, causing Frank to become increasingly protective of her when Sam treats her with cruelty and scorn. John and Frank work well together, but, being of mixed race, John is subject to Sam’s racist language and attitudes.
Traveling by wagon with a team of animals in the late 19th century was a huge and precarious undertaking. Each day is a quest to cover as many miles as possible and to find a safe place to sleep at night. Hunting rabbits for dinner is a gamble because the sound of gunshots could alert Indians to the campers’ presence. Readers will feel as if they’re on the journey themselves.
Sam hides his gold in plain sight, the Dutch oven hangs from the wagon like any kitchen utensil by day, but he buries the pot each night. The scene is set for explosive confrontations, murders, cover-ups, lies, trials, jail sentences and fatal consequences. This book is as suspenseful as any thriller, more so because these events are a part of history.
Clevenger Gold is a scintillating work of historic fiction, but as its subtitle notes, it’s also “the true story of murder and unfound treasure.” In the book’s preface and introduction, author Scott Eldon Swapp states that the basic facts on which the narrative rests are accurate. While researching this deeply fascinating tale of a family journeying from the Arizona Territory to the Washington Territory in the 1870s with a couple of hired hands, Swapp studied county, state, territorial and national archives. He shares his methodology and research finds with the reader, and most chapter titles mark the exact location and time of specific incidents on the trip. Swapp clearly strives for the utmost accuracy in recreating this wildly dramatic episode in U.S. territorial history.
Much of the plot takes places via dialogue and Swapp writes the verve and sass of cowboy lingo with relish. Swapp’s enthusiasm for the mystery of the buried treasure is infectious.
Sam’s gold is still out there, waiting to be found. Swapp encourages the reader with these words, “If you have the skills and patience to seek real treasure, go get it!”
Clevenger Gold: The True Story of Murder and Unfound Treasure by Scott Eldon Swapp won First Place in the 2016 Laramie Awards!