23. July 2014 · Comments Off on The Latest Chapter – The Golden Road · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book
Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

(All righty, then – having been working on several different projects, I have been able to work on The Golden Road – the picaresque Gold Rush adventure that I have always wanted to write, but … the chapters of it are coming slowly. The previous chapters are here, and here. Basically, it’s the adventures of young Fredi Steinmetz, who – for a variety of reasons – takes the trail to California in 1855.)

Chapter 5 – End of the Trail

The heat of summer faded, even though they were still crossing through desert country. It was cold at night; Fredi was profoundly grateful for the warmth of the bedroll that he slept in at night, although as it came about, he and the other drovers more and more often took shelter at night underneath the wagons. With the cooling of the nights came rain, most always in the afternoon about the time that they had chosen to set up camp for the night. Gil had the teamsters park the wagons a couple of yards apart, and to string the wagon covers together on ropes, running between the hickory hoops which ordinarily supported the cover, together with a length of canvas between to make a shelter against the rain, which came in a furious drenching flood for an hour or so. They could often see this rain coming in at some distance; a grey veil hanging from beneath a tower of clouds, the scent of moisture striking dry soil arriving on gusts of a suddenly-active breeze.
Those daily rains made the desert around them bloom, as much as it was a discomfort to the drovers, sleeping on pallets laid on suddenly-muddy ground. Grass came up, lush and green – and the cattle drank eagerly of the fresh rainwater wherever it accumulated – in small and temporary rivulets, or even from those puddles accumulated in the low places along the trail. O’Malley shook his head in dismay and disbelief.
“I swear, ‘tis unnatural. This is September – nearly November, when all should be drear and dead ahead of wintertime – and yet everything is as green and blooming as spring in Antrim.”
“That’s the way of it in this part of the world, Aloysius,” Gil chuckled at the Irishman’s befuddlement. “Autumn and winter are green and blooming – summer is bare and dry. And the oak trees are green the year throughout.”
“’Tis unnatural,” O’Malley grumbled.

Zeke Satterwaite was able to mount up and go back to work after a week or so of jolting along in O’Malley’s spring wagon, although it took a good while longer for the bruises from Fredi’s beating to fade from livid red and purple to yellow. There was a definite change in the shape of his nose and with two teeth missing, what Zeke had in the way of good looks had definitely fled. Fredi tried approaching him once or twice in order to tender an apology – he did feel he owed Zeke that much – but Zeke walked away the first time that Fredi tried and the second time, he snarled, “You keep away from me, you nigra-loving foreigner.” As Zeke appeared disinclined to seek out Fredi’s company in any way, Fredi left the matter alone. If Zeke wanted nothing to do with Fredi, Fredi was content with having nothing to do with the Satterwaite brothers for the remainder of the journey. He said as much to Charlie, one evening.
Charlie, leaning on one elbow to light his pipe from the embers of the cookfire, answered,
“Told you so, Dutch; he don’t want to risk another beating – but I’d not turn my back on him entirely. He’s the kind of sneak who would think long and hard about what you did to him, build up a good grudge and stick a knife in your back in a dark alley in Bexar … or some other place. I’ve hear tell that the gold camps are pretty lawless.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Fredi replied. “But California’s a big place. You’re certain you won’t come with us, once Gil sells the herd and gives us all our wages?”
“I’m certain,” Charlie answered. Fredi had asked him several times. So far, Fredi and O’Malley’s plans were for going to San Diego, and seeing about working their way north. If worst came to worst, O’Malley intended selling the mules and his wagon, and taking ship on a coastal steamer for San Francisco and the gold mines. What was left of the goods and supplies in the freight wagons were intended to be sold in San Diego. They were close enough now that such plans did not seem like a dream out of reach. They had swum the herd over the Gila River at Yuma the day before. Apache country was far behind, so a night-guard was no longer such a necessity. So was the cruel desert, and the cattle fattened on the rich winter grass. Because there was a military post at Yuma, with a regular courier and supply wagons going back and forth, Fredi and some of the other hands wrote letters to be sent east to friends and kin, entrusting them with the last of their coin money to an Army wagoneer who promised to post them on when he got to Bexar.
In the middle of November, the herd reached a place called Warner’s Ranch, a resting place on a heavily traveled trail, set in a shallow valley between gently rolling hills, covered in grass like the velvety upholstery on an overstuffed chair. There were cattle and sheep everywhere, for the lands around were rich and the weather temperate. The end of the trail, for Gil and the Fabreaux herd; Fredi looked down from the last heights with a certain degree of regret, seeing the roofs of the rancho – a rambling and comfortable house of adobe mud-brick, with stables and barns, quarters for the many tame Indians who worked there, and for visitors like themselves.
Gil, gone out on scout ahead of the herd, came riding back smiling from ear to ear.
“Almost there, boys – the folks at Warner’s are going to send messages out to buyers for the herd – and they’re going to purchase half the herd themselves, looking to sell in the diggings in the spring. It’s a going business – as near as I can see it’s not the miners getting rich from finding gold, it’s the storekeepers selling them the vittles and tools they need, and the tavern-keeps selling them the panther-piss they need to keep themselves merry with. And Dona Vincenta is coming to meet us – a great courtesy, since we have come from such a distance with so large a herd.”
“I thought this was Warner’s rancho,” Fredi ventured, in some confusion.
“There was a court claim on it – went on for on for decades, over whose land grant was the legitimate one,” Gil explained, scratching his jaw, as he and Fredi sat side by side on their horses, just at the high point in the trail which led down to Warner’s. “Either Don Jose Warner or Dona Vincenta Carrillo… I have it on good authority that the lawyers got rich and fat and retired to ranchos of their own, over the course of settling the matter. No difference to me – a buyer is a buyer, and Texas cattle are Texas cattle. The good lady has offered me a price almost good enough to have made it worth my while.”
Dona Vincenta Carrillo turned out to be a handsome and forthright woman of certain years, beautifully dressed in a full-skirted silk dress. She and a slender boy a little younger than Fredi presently rode out from the rancho and approached the foot of the hill where Gil and Fredi waited. When she was closer, Fredi could see that she rode astride like a man, her ankles peeping shyly out between the ruffles of her petticoat and the tops of her high-buttoned shoes. Fredi had not seen such splendid horseflesh since the 4th of July horse-races among the Fredericksburg Germans, or the meeting with Sally Doyle at the Fabreaux place. He wondered idly, if these two formidable matrons would ever chance to meet – they seemed to be in the same trade and to possess the same command over horseflesh, cattle, and lesser human beings.
“The lady speaks no English,” Gil said, when they were still at some distance. “Her son translates.”
“I speak some Spanish,” Fredi volunteered, and Gil nodded. “You have a better grip on the lingo than I do, Dutch – come along with me to meet them halfway.
The boy spoke English beautifully, without any trace of an accent that Fredi could tell – his own accent still marked after half his life spent in Texas. “I am Senor Jose Antonio Yorba – this is my mother, Madame Vincenta Yorba Carrillo. You are most welcome to the Valley of San Jose, Senor Fabreaux …you and your friends and companions. You are invited to stay in hour house … our hacienda for as long as you wish, and for no more than the pleasure of your company.”
“I thank you for the hospitality,” Gil tipped his hat towards Dona Vincenta, who nodded regally. “I am told that it is legendary along this part of the trail – it was a long journey for us, and to sleep in a bed under a solid roof again will be a pleasure that we have not enjoyed for many months. This is Freddy Steinmetz, one of my most trusted fellows. He speaks Spanish, as well as German – his folks were educated, so I can assure you of his gentlemanly manners … trail-worn as we all are.”
“You are from Germany, not Texas?” young Jose brightened with interest and Fredi warmed to him at once. Jose reminded him very much of Johann – even the names were the same in different languages.
“I am … I was,” Fredi answered. Following Gil’s example, he took off his own had, somewhat abashed for having forgotten the courtesy. “Thank you, ma’am … Gracias, Dona Vincenta, gracias por la oferta de la hospitalidad.”
“De nada,” the lady replied, seeming to dismiss any inconvenience to herself or her household, although Fredi reckoned that it must be considerable … until he actually became better acquainted with the Carillo’s extensive establishment.

They rested there for two weeks, although with the sale of the cattle well in hand, nearly twenty of the drovers took their wages and departed the same day that Gil paid them – either returning to Texas and their families, or in hast towards the gold diggings – despite knowing that most of the mines would be wintered in until spring. Charlie departed last of all.
“I’m not looking forward to some of the trail,” he said on the morning that he departed east. “But Mama and Pa Daugherty will be looking for me, and I don’t want them worried none. Good luck in the gold mines, Dutch – you too, O’Malley – don’t enjoy yourself too much.”
“Nothing to fear, Charlie-boyo – I am a will-o-the-wisp, a restless spirit, never lingering long in any one place.”
“You’ve just met someone who tells taller tales than you,” Charlie grinned, and then he was gone, a rapidly diminished figure on horseback, riding up the hill to the east.

Remaining for more than days at the Rancho Valle de San Jose was a considerable temptation – for it was a welcoming place, comfortable and well-appointed with many expensive luxuries imported from the east; elegant furniture in the latest fashion, many books and even several very fine clocks, which chimed the hours. The hacienda’s various wings surrounded a courtyard, with a small garden in the center, and a series of covered galleries on three sides – open to the garden, yet roofed against the rain, and constituting a series of open-air rooms. Fredi and O’Malley found themselves taken to the heart of a large family – for Dona Vincenta had been married twice and produced a goodly brood of children with both of her husbands, although she was still as slender as a girl and the youngest of the children an infant.
Her second husband, Don Jose-Ramon Carrillo, proved a most engaging character; although a man somewhat older than his wife, and exceedingly mild and soft-spoken in character and conversation, he could tell of the most amazing adventures he had undertaken as a soldier and rancher. He spoke English quite well; he had associated with many of the American settlers and soldiers in who had drifted into California in the days before gold was found, although he had lived there all his life, being born of a family which had been established there since the days of the Spanish. Fredi quite liked Don Jose-Ramon although he was never entirely certain if the latter was teasing his listeners with accounts of his adventures – such as the time when he had fought and killed a mountain bear with no more weapons than his hunting knife and the leather apron from his saddle.
“I saw the bear at some distance,” Don Jose-Ramon said, from his chair by the fireplace in the parlor, on a day when rain made venturing out of doors a wet and uninviting prospect. The Don and a handful of his guests – Fredi, Gil Fabreaux and O’Malley and a number of visitors from other ranchos – were regaling each other telling stories to pass the time on a rainy winter afternoon, when clouds pressed down on the hilltops like a heavy grey featherbed. “In the hills to the north, a good way to the north from here; he was a huge, golden monster. I was with friends … and I was younger and reckless of danger – and I proposed some sport; I would dismount and fight the bear…”
“Surely, they did try and discourage you from this rash attempt,” O’Malley interjected, and Don Jose-Ramon smiled.
“Ah, but it was a matter of honor, my dear friend … a matter of honor and a challenge. I had sworn that I would take the bear on those terms. So, I took up my hunting knife and the mochila from my saddle and went to meet my foe.”
“Aye, like a warrior of old, with a sword and shield,” O’Malley nodded, and Don Jose-Ramon beamed, relishing the memory in the retelling at least as much as he had enjoyed the fight itself. “I had the mochila around my left arm, the knife unsheathed in my right, like so … and the bear charged, roaring hideously and rising to stand up on hind legs! It bared claws and struck at me, but I parried the blow with my left arm – wrapped so in the mochila, so that the blows of it’s hideous claws had no effect as I thrust with my knife – again and again! I stabbed upwards, feeling my knife sink deep into its flesh – the bear bellowed, enraged! I stabbed again and again, as its blows against me weakened! I parried with my left arm – and at last the hideous creature fell at my feet, quite dead. I was unharmed, but for some small wounds from its claws on my hand and cheek – You may see now that I had some slight scars for my trouble … and a most magnificent bear skin for my dogs to sleep upon.”
“A veritable Nimrod,” O’Malley lauded their host; to Fredi it seems that O’Malley did so as much for Don Jose-Ramon daring in confronting a mountain bear with only a knife in hand as for his facility in making a splendid story of it. “I envy you, sir – most heartily … oh, not that I would ever wish to copy such a feat, but that I would want to witness such.”
“You will have such a chance,” Don Jose-Ramon exclaimed in an enthusiasm of hospitality and good-will. “For there has been a bear seen in these hills – not the equal of this big fellow – but of a good size and hungry. In this mild climate the bears do not retire to a den to sleep throughout the winter. In the spring, such a bear is a danger to my young calves … so, if the weather turns fair tomorrow – we’ll go on a bear-hunt, my friends! I will show you how we hunt for bear … better yet, if we can capture it alive – a bull and bear fight! Now that is a sport the like of which you will not have seen anywhere else in the world!”
“Not in this century,” Gil Fabreaux observed, but even he was interested in such an excursion. “I have heard of such contests, but have never seen one, or met anyone who had.”
“Then it will be our pleasure to provide such amusement to our guests!” Don Jose-Ramon promised, in a fit of extravagant hospitality which Fredi and the other drovers from Texas had already come to expect from their host. As O’Malley observed the next morning in admiration,
“Oh, he’s like one of the grand kings of Ulster – King Conchobar mac Nessa himself, with his grand house, offering hospitality to all and asking for nothing more than his guests bring news, songs and stories from far away. I would, if I were so inclined, nominate myself to be his bard, and sing the epic tales of the heroes every evening at supper.”
“If we find this bear that he talks of, you’ll have a good and proper ode to sing,” Gil Fabreaux observed. The rain had let up overnight, leaving the bare ground scattered with puddles, and the edge of every blade of grass and leaves on trees bejeweled with crystal drops, which caught the sun and glittered, while an infrequent gust of breeze sent drops splattering to the ground underneath. Two of Don Jose-Ramon’s houseguests came with the party; gentlemen of California from neighboring ranchos, with Fredi and Gil rode their cow-ponies, and O’Malley one of his team mules, in serene indifference to the fact that he cut a ridiculous figure, with his legs dangling on either side.
“He looks like Sancho Panza,” murmured young Jose with an impish smile to Fredi, who managed to keep a puzzled expression from his own face. He didn’t think any of the Carillo hands were named Sancho, and in any case O’Malley looked like no one but himself, threadbare green coat, battered top-hat and all.
The boys followed after Don Jose-Ramon and the other men, up into the hills above the rancho and its outbuildings. Now and again they encountered wandering cattle, especially in the meadows, often up to their shoulders in lush new grass, but Don Jose-Ramon’s path lay in the direction of the angular barrier of the hills which shouldered up, blue and blue-green in the distance, the peaks of the tallest lightly dusted with white. Birds started up from that grass at their approach – fat and clumsy quail with white-spotted wings and a comic tuft of black on their heads. Now and again, as they rode up into the narrow, twisting canyons in the lowest of the hills they were serenaded by the welcome sound of running water.
“These waters only run after a good rain,” explained Don Jose-Ramon. Soon their party climbed into the lower foothills, patched in places with grey chamisa scrub, in places as thick as the fur on a buffalo-hide robe. After some miles, Fredi cared little if they found a bear or not, but the men seemed happy enough; a day on horseback away from the hacienda with no duties to do with cattle to burden them. He relished the out of doors, the clean smell of rain-wet earth and grass, the vaguely spicy scent of bruised sagebrush and chamisa which brushed their knees and the flanks of their horses as they followed Don Jose-Ramon along increasingly narrow trails. The sunshine that fell on them was bright but not warm, and that the prospect before him was slightly but deliciously unfamiliar.
“I like that which is different,” he explained earnestly to young Don Jose, who nodded in agreement.
“You have the soul of a wanderer, Fredrick,” he agreed. “My mother would say that you are one fated never to be happy to settle in one place, until you are an old, old man, and maybe not even then. Now I was sent to school in Boston, but I was never so happy as I was to return home and know that I would never have to leave here again… hsss! I think my stepfather has found his bear!”
They drew rein, noting that Don Jose-Ramon was pointing at the hillside below; a hillside covered deep in dark green and grey scrub bushes, with small trails made by rabbit and deer in between. On the far edge, something moved among the brush, a thing so large that Fredi thought at first looked like a buffalo – something with hulking withers, covered in shaggy pale-brown fur. It did not move like a buffalo at all, though – and when it lifted it’s nose to sniff at the air, Fredi could see quite plainly that it wasn’t a buffalo. Even at a distance, it didn’t look to be dangerously large. Don Jose-Ramon stood in his stirrups, taking his riata from his saddle-horn; he swung the fist with the riata in it over his head and shouting, spurred his horse downhill at a perfectly breakneck pace.
The others plunged after, with slightly more care; the ground under the guise of the chamisa was broken with gullies, stones and animal burrows – a perfect invitation to a broken leg for a horse and a broken head for a man. None wanted to seem a coward when Don Jose-Ramon led the way so recklessly.

(To be continued – of course. I plan to have The Golden Road finished and published in November/December 2015)

Comments closed.