The Ghost of Happy Jack McGee

Submitted into Contest #117 in response to: Write about a missing person nobody seems to know or remember.... view prompt


Adventure Creative Nonfiction Suspense

In central Montana, just east of the Continental Divide lies the remains of a boomtown that during the area's gold rush was abustle with merchants, a few settlers, and hopeful sourdoughs dreaming of a rich strike. Locals tell stories of one "Happy" Jack McGee, a man who left his home in Virginia for the goldfields of the California Gold Rush where he had a very successful claim that netted him a small fortune in gold nuggets. As all successful claims eventually do, his played out so he took his poke and was heading east toward home when he heard stories of gold strikes in the west of the state so he coursed northward. In 1860's Montana there were dangers lurking at every pass both human and animal. When Jack rode into Butte he found a wild west gun-town more dangerous than the grizzly bears that roamed the surrounding mountains so he decided to head north a bit farther and eventually settled near Helena where he built a small cabin and resumed his search for the yellow metal.

  McGee found a rich area and was mining very successfully. He would occasionally go into town for provisions which he paid for with nuggets and was always secretive of where he found them, in fact, he rarely said a word about anything to anyone. He would simply ride into town and leave as quietly as he came. They say two men once attempted to follow him to learn his location but were attacked by a bear and one of them barely escaped with his life as his partner was mauled to death. There are other stories of people heading into that area who were either chased out by bears or never to be seen again but as all secrets are eventually revealed, a small camp sprouted in the area near where Jack was working. As more miners found success a town grew around Jack McGee's homestead which made him very bitter and on a chilly fall evening some folks saw him walking north into the mountains, his horse laden with a large pack. He had left the town never to be seen again. One miner who had been living in a canvas tent spent that winter in Jack's abandoned cabin and the following spring he ventured north to do some prospecting. A few weeks later his grisly remains were found in a draw where he was sluicing, apparently the victim of an animal attack. There were more than a few reports of bear sightings in the area and some even claimed that one particular grizzly bear was actually Jack McGee himself guarding his secret mining location and his treasure. 

As the years passed the town boomed and a large commercial mining operation formed but eventually shuttered its doors as the mine petered out and the workers moved on. It was the beginning of the end for what is now this ghost of a town.

  In 2012 I took a trip to Lincoln, Montana for a couple of weeks to see an old friend and do some treasure hunting. We prospected a small amount of gold on his BLM claim and I found a few relics and old coins metal detecting in town but my first attempts at nugget shooting with my machine were fruitless. It was a Saturday morning when I noticed a small outdoor flea market on highway 200. Wandering the booths I saw some neat stuff and met an interesting old fellow who would talk your ears off. I told him about myself and why I was in Lincoln when he told me this interesting tale about Jack McGee and the town that was only about 20 miles away. I told my friend Brian that was where we should be going to spend the next day. He was a bit tentative but agreed that we would go. That evening we packed our gear and while sitting outside having some beers we heard loud sounds up the draw. Brian said they had mules up there and went in to make a phone call. When he returned he told me they had just chased off a grizzly.

  The next morning we headed across the Continental Divide looking for the ghost town. The directions the old fellow from the flea market were spot-on and it wasn't long until I thought I saw the remains of an old building in a clearing on the side of a big hill so we stopped to give a look. As I got out of the truck something caught my eye about 50 yards away, it was a bear and it was looking right at me. Retreating back inside the vehicle we decided to move along. A couple miles up the road we were heading up a big hill and crossed a fairly large stream and parked. Up the stream was a clearing in the trees where we did find the remains of an old stone chimney surrounded by rotting logs. I was so excited I darn near ran back to the truck for my metal detector, Brian was more excited to be able to put his sluice in the water since it was legal to in-stream mine east of the Continental Divide. I was far more interested in the old cabin remains. 

  My treasure-hunting partner had a gun with him so I felt a bit more comfortable about being in bear country but never really did feel at ease so as I swung my machine, I kept one headphone off just to be safe. Around the old homesite, I found a few targets but they all turned out to be iron so I decided to focus more on the midrange signals hoping to turn up a gold nugget. After a while, I ventured away from the ruins and worked my way across the creek. Every so often above the water's babbling, I thought I heard heavy breathing but looking around I saw nothing. Then the crack of a twig put me on alert so I made sure my shovel was at the ready on my shoulder. Looking downstream I could still see Brian and thought to move back towards him but my desire to find McGee's gold kept me moving upstream. 

  Uphill from the stream about 30 yards away, something about the woods looked different so I went to check it out. I found what looked like the outline of some rotten logs stacked like a collapsed wall and followed them to where there were more at a right angle to the first. I had stumbled upon another old cabin and became very excited. I began probing around what would have been inside the walls and after only a few minutes I heard a great signal from my metal detector about 8" deep and just as I knelt down to dig the target I heard something crashing through the woods right behind me! Jumping up and spinning around I found myself face to face with.....a cow. That cow was just as startled as me and it ran off leaving me shaking in my boots. I eventually regained my composure and decided I would retrieve that target but apparently, when I jumped up I stepped on and broke the coil of my machine. ARGHHH! At that moment I had settled to the fact that my detecting day was over and I loudly exclaimed, "Okay Happy Jack, you win. I am done seeking your gold."

October 23, 2021 02:06

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Lisa Neuvelt
20:51 Oct 31, 2021

I really liked this story. It’s funny because I have a short story (have not summited) with my main character named Jack McGee. But my character is a computer geek.


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Rudy Uribe
19:41 Oct 30, 2021

It sounds like you know a lot about gold mining. I really enjoyed your story and if I could I would like to critique a couple of points. Sometimes your paragraphs contain more than one scene. I would break them up more often. It makes it easier to read. POV - you start out in an omniscient point of view which is third-person. (you are a narrator) Midway through you jump into first-person when you say, "In 2012 I took a trip." I'm no expert so you might want to research this, but my understanding is that in a novel it's okay to change POV. ...


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