18. April 2016 · Comments Off on A Further Chapter: The Golden Road · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West
Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

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

(So, I have been able to pick up the story of Fredi Steinmetz, adventuring in Gold-Rush era California, having finished some other projects and the second Chronicle of Luna City. He and his eccentric and slightly mysterious friend O’Malley have spent an eventful two months in San Francisco, waiting for winter to end in the diggings, working at odd jobs, encountering interesting people, and making friends – among them, an apparent orphan boy of about 14, Edwin Barnett … whose history might just be the equal of O’Malley’s for mystery and intrigue. But Edwin knows of a potentially rich dig in the lower Sierras … and so he becomes a third partner …) 

Chapter 12 – To the Mines

The wagon packed high with supplies, a canvas tent and bedrolls, as well as a contraption that Edwin said was a ‘cradle’,  O’Malley and Fredi finally departed from San Francisco on a foggy morning early in May. They took deck passage on a relatively comfort-less and therefore cheap freight steamboat bound to Sacramento and beyond as far as Yuba City for the wagon, mules, and themselves. With some difficulty they urged the mules over a wide gangplank laid between wharf and the blunt prow of the boat, drawing the wagon after, and found an open space between the neat piles of fuel cordwood and bales of goods bound for the mines, which were stacked on the main deck. Edwin Barnett with Nipper in his arms, clung to a high perch on top of the cargo, as the side-wheel steamer threshed out into the bay, heading north towards Vallejo and the old territorial capital at Benicia, and from there into the tangled delta of the American River. It was estimated they would be a week or so at this – a considerable savings in time over driving the wagon all the way. The patchwork heights of San Francisco and the forests of ships’ masts in harbor vanished very soon in a billow of fog. Within a short way, every surface was wetted with condensation, collecting in beads of moisture. The slight vibration of the mighty steam turbine below deck shook rivulets of water from every slanting surface. It felt to Fredi like the beating of a mighty heart. O’Malley, the boys and the dog huddled in blankets, under the dripping wagon cover, and the mules stood miserable with their noses together.
“This is the first time I have ever been on a steam ship,” Fredi’s excitement at this new experience overcame the misery of passage across the open bay.
“I’m glad to be away from there, Fredi-boyo,” O’Malley confessed. “Between the crimps kidnapping men off the street, an’ murdering swine like that devil Cora, not to mention the fires and the constant pestilential weather … I dinna care to stay a moment longer. There’s a feeling in the city like a storm about to break – a dangerous mood, when honest, well-intentioned men are becoming fed to the back-teeth with corruption and vice. There’s murder in the air, an’ I want none of it.”
“Mr. King was always carrying a revolver, there were so many threats against him for what he printed in the Bulletin,” Fredi nodded in agreement. He had been half-appalled, yet tantalized by the chaotic, haphazard life of a large city, the like of which he had never experienced before. The seamy, vice-ridden waterfront district, the haphazard tents and shanties climbing up the sandy slopes of Russian Hill, muddy streets, magnificent gambling halls and theaters, jousting uncomfortably with the respectability of churches and luxurious mansions, all hung over with the smoldering threat of violence … and fire. Sober Yankee businessmen, elbow to elbow with edgy chivalric gentlemen from the South, Chileans and Chinamen, Kanakas from the Islands of Hawaii, sailors from every nation, swaggering thugs, straight off the latest ship from the Australian prison colonies – and madmen in plenty, most of them mad for gold. Nothing in Fredi’s previous life had ever prepared him for this, not the cattle trail from Texas, or the staid and orderly streets of Fredericksburg, back in Gillespie County.
“It’s not like there is any more law in the diggings,” Edwin now said, morosely. “There are brigands and bandits and claim-jumpers a’plenty.”
“For certain there are,” O’Malley said, agreeably. “But they are few and go against the company of righteous men – they have not suborned the law to feather well their own nests. So, tell us, now – there are rich diggings in the hills between … which river is it?”
“Between the middle and north forks of the Yuba River,” Edwin nodded, rubbing the end of his nose with the back of his sleeve. “They called it Coarse Gold Hill, sometimes Pine Tree Diggings … it’s far enough up into the mountains beyond Camptonville, to where the snow closes down the diggings in late fall.”
“And you know of rich diggings because …” O’Malley hinted broadly and Edwin replied, “I had kinfolk with a claim there. A rich one … which still ought to be mine, by right. But it has been left for months …” and Edwin’s pale, peaked face was adult in its adamantine determination. “But I know where the best and most promising part of the diggings lie – and if we are the first to reclaim and stake our own claim … this will be worth the journey. I promise you fellows …” Edwin blushed, boy-like, and embraced Nipper even closer, as if for security, and Nipper, who above all else hated cold and wet with an uncharacteristic passion for a dog, licked the lad’s cheek, and burrowed deeper into the shelter of the blanket wrapped around them both. Edwin continued, “You are both stout fellows and have been good friends to me, so a third each of the gold in this claim; that would be fair, would it not? And we are good friends, aren’t we … three in fortune and friendship, like the royal musketeers in that French novel of M. Dumas … All for one and one for all?”
“We are indade, boyo,” O’Malley answered, comfortably, “Although Fredi-lad and I have been true companions these many months … to admit another to our fellowship – especially a trusty fellow with knowledge of the mines – is a most providential occurrence. You have a skill, complimentary to mine and Fredi’s. So you see, we shall get on very well, I believe. Even more when we get out from this pestilential fog. My oath upon it, lads – there is nothing to equal this fog and misery, not even in old Eire…”

Over the days of their journey, as the river steamboat chugged across the wide reaches of the bay, and threaded through the tangle of waterways which comprised the delta, the fogs thinned to a brief mist at sunrise, tangled in the stands of tall tule reeds. The air seemed drier; often in the afternoons. The river ran broad and fair, the meadows on either hand appearing more as if a purpose-designed park. Horses, cattle – and more often, deer – browsed along the banks, seemingly without fear or apprehension.
“’Tis like a noble garden planned by the great Capability, around one of the great estates of Ireland,” O’Malley was wont to comment. Water-birds stalked through the shallows, snow-white egrets who stood on long, stick-thin legs, pointing their beaks at the sky. Every aspect pleased the eye; Fredi wished that he had some skill at painting and drawing, like poor sickly Mr. Petri, a neighbor back in Gillespie County; it would surely have helped to pass the time, as the lazy days of the river journey began to tell on him. This was the most time that Fredi had been inactive since departing the generous hospitality of the Carrillo rancho at the end of Gil Fabreaux’ cattle drive, so many months before.
All that he and Edwin must do of a day for chores was to supply green fodder and water for the mules. The steamboat master obligingly drew near a river bank where the grass grew lush and thick, setting a plank from deck to shore, where the two boys might scramble ashore once a day and scythe armloads of fresh grass. O’Malley smoked a leisurely pipe in the afternoons, with Nipper curled at his side, and Edwin talked about gold, how to search for it, and what to look for in seeking – or ‘color’ as Edwin called it.
“Panning is easy, but slow,” he said, that triangular, sharp-chinned face intense. “It works best when the color is plentiful, along a rich bar at the inside bend of a creek or a river, or at the bottom of a stretch of rapids, where the water slows all of a sudden. Find a good run of color by panning – and then set up a cradle, or the Long Tom. Some say that dark gravel or sand is a good sign of color … Pa …Padgett – our cousin who struck a good rich vein in the Pine Tree diggings – he always said to look for granite outcrops. Sometimes good color would turn up in the crevices between slabs of granite. But most often – in a gravelly valley – some say in that was a river during the Noachian flood, but dried up long since.”
“Why d’ye suppose all that gold came from at the first?” O’Malley mused, and Edwin answered readily, “I heard tell that somewhere up in the highest mountains, there is a great cliff of coal-black granite all threaded through the gold … it’s the Mother lode, you see. And rivers run down through the mountains from a lake at the foot of that cliff; they carry all the little nuggets and grains of gold down through the hills.”
“And has anyone ever found this grand mother lode and cliff of gold?” O’Malley asked, with somewhat skeptical interest, and Edwin sighed.
“No – and not for want of looking, either,” he answered. “I reckon if it was there to find … well, with everyone crawling up every little valley and gulch looking for gold … if it was there, it would have been found.”
“How long have you been in California, Edwin?” Frederick asked, idly. “Did you come here with family at first – or are you an orphan apprentice?”
Edwin’s thin shoulders straightened, proudly. “No – I came with family; Pa and Ma, and my sister Elodie, and my little brother Sammy. We came over the trail from Missouri, in ’48, before word got out about gold. Pa … he was partners early on with Mr. Murphy in San Jose…”
“And then, what?” Fredi was intrigued; he and his family had come over from Germany when he and his twin were seven years old. It was a long and torturous journey, but with the promises of the Verein at the end of it all, and somehow, everything seemed to have worked out all right, save for Mama and his sister Liesel’s little baby dying of ship-fever during the voyage. Fredi didn’t rightly like to think any more of how those canvas-wrapped and weighted bodies – the small one, and the tiny one – had vanished into the green ocean, while Pastor Altemuller read the words for proper burial from the deck of the Apollo.
“They found gold,” Edwin answered, in bleak and desolate tones. “Gold in the mill-race at Coloma. And Pa said that we should go to the gold-fields and make a fortune. It didn’t work out as he expected …”
“They died, leaving you an orphan?” O’Malley ventured – his Irish accents heavy with sympathy, and Fredi reached across to where Edwin sat with Nipper in his lap, intending to ruffle the boys’ roughly-barbered dark hair. Instead, Edwin flinched aside from the touch, but Fredi wrote it off to remembered grief. In those dark days after Mama died, he and Johann could only accept sympathy from the family, not officious strangers, and very little of that. He took no offense – after all, he had Vati, his sisters, and their husbands. Faraway in Gillespie County, of course, but it seemed that Edwin had no one at all.
“Of … of the cholera, all of them,” Edwin’s peaked face went even paler with misery, and Fredi ventured, “Then have you no kinfolk at all – of uncles and aunts, not a one?”
“In St. Louis,” Edwin gulped. “My Pa’s sister – she married a man named Henry Parmalee … and Ma had kin there, as well. I’m intending to go back there, as soon as I have enough of a stake. I’ve had enough of Californy.”
“You could take service as a sailor, and work your way home from San Francisco,” O’Malley suggested, and Edwin shook his head in vigorous dismissal, saying, “No … I heard too many bad stories – put myself on a ship, knowing what I know of the likes of ol’ Shanghai Pierce and his pals to trust my life to any of them? I’d most prefer to take my chance with Indians an’ Mormons … but I need a stake before I go anywhere. I owe it to Pa an’ Ma.”
“Understood, boyo – understood,” O’Malley replied. “Faith, an’ a nice fat purse o’ gold would do much for any poor man – but I do not expect that we will be poor for long, not with gold for the taking, like pebbles in the road…”
Edwin was already shaking his head. “It’s not as easy as all that, Mr. O’Malley,” he said, as serious as a judge. “It’s work, as hard as any you can do, up to your knees in cold water, shoveling dirt into the cradle, looking for a but o’ color…”
“But with the advantage of being work for yourself, instead of another.” O’Malley replied, cheery as a cricket. Fredi and Edwin exchanged wry grins – the man lived on optimism.

They knew that they were approaching Sacramento, some miles before seeing the ramble of houses at tall trees at the edge of the water on the morning of the third day; the haze of wood-smoke in the air, a pale dust-colored smudge in the blue sky above endless green meadows and tule-marshes, which marked the town as readily as any signpost.
“We’ll be here for a night,” the boat’s pilot and master told them, as he edged the laden steamboat to a place on the waterfront, “Before we go on to Yuba City. I got cargo to off-load, and take on more wood for the boilers. Spend the night on board, or spend it ashore, don’t matter none to me. Just be back before we cast off, or else you’ll have to swim upstream.”
“We’ll stretch our legs, an’ see if we can afford a hot meal,” O’Malley doffed his battered top-hat to the pilot and master, “And be back aboard, before three shakes of a lamb’s tail, you may depend on it … Although,” he added in a lower voice to the boys and the ever-alert Nipper. “I will be glad to stretch my legs and partake of a hot meal.”
They had been dining on hard-tack, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, dried fruit and pickles, since departing from San Francisco – comestibles taken from their store in the wagon. Fredi was heartily tired of it after three days, spoiled as he was from meals at Ma’am Pleasant’s kitchen, and he knew that Edwin must be as well.
“I could set my teeth well into a supper of boiled or roasted beef,” Fredi replied. “Let us walk around the town, and find ourselves one last excellent meal … as well as whatever entertainment this place provides of a day. But O’Malley – we ought not to be too long about it … or,” Fredi added, with a meaningful glance, “Be lured into a gambling hell … no. Remember how we were cozened into an unwilling alliance with Fantly Bean? That should not happen again, now that we are on the threshold of the mines.”
“Boyo,” O’Malley protested, with an expression of hurt upon his countenance. “I promise, on my word – that I will be discrete and as careful as a mother with maiden daughters …”
“We have a partnership and property with which to take a mind of,” Fredi was adamant. “You have your skills, and I have mine – and one of mine is to never be lured into games of chance with strangers and bet more than I can afford.”
The steamboat’s crew threw out ropes, from fore and aft – ropes caught and made fast by men on shore throwing a single cast about a pair of bollards. The great wheels slowed in turning, drifting forward and a little sideways, until arrested in that small movement by the ropes. The mooring-ropes snapped taut, and the boat rocked gently for a moment, until the prow rope was loosed from the stout mooring bollards set into the wharf-side at regular intervals.
“Haul away!” cried one of the men on the dock, and his fellows bent their backs, hauling at one rope and then another, until the steamboat nestled alongside the wharf, bobbing gently in the current. A single gangplank crashed down, with a noise like muffled cannon-shot.
“The gateway to Golconda, lads,” O’Malley remarked, as they set foot on shore, and each looked around. Fredi felt as if the solid wharf under his feet still bobbed and swayed, as the boat had done. Sacramento – being built on relatively flat land, did not present nearly the overwhelming view that San Francisco did. The buildings lining the other side of the docks were simple of plaster over brick, of sawn lumber with some small ornamentation, mostly of two stories tall, widely set apart and interspersed with tall trees, with an occasional church-steeple, flag pole, shot-tower, or tall chimney looming in the distance above the lower rooftops.
It all looked a pleasant and well-appointed city, although there did seem to be an unexpected bustle at the dockside – of prosperous shop-keepers and workmen in calico shirtsleeves moving purposefully toward the center of the city. There seemed to be a good-sized crowd, and drawn by curiosity, O’Malley and the two boys followed after – since everyone seemed to be going that way, anyway.
“What is the excitement, then?” O’Malley courteously doffed his battered top-hat in the direction of an especially ragged miner, bearded like a bear and as large as one, his trousers and round jacket well-daubed with mud, testifying both to his profession and the haste with which he had come to Sacramento. “It is that we are only passing through this lovely city, and wish not to appear giving offense, d’ye see?”
“A hanging,” the miner answered, gruff, yet with a gentlemanly courtesy which belied his rough appearance. “A claim-jumping, murdering scum – tried fair and square two days ago, for murders done last fall in Gold Hill on the Yuba.”
O’Malley placed his hat and hand on his breast, an appropriate expression of sorrow on his face. “’Tis sorrowful I am indade to hear of murders, but satisfied to hear that justice is being carried out …”
“Who is being hanged?” That was Edwin, his peaked face tense with agitation at O’Malley’s side. “From Gold Hill on the Yuba? Tell me, who did he murder?”
“Say, boy – did you not read the newspapers?” The miner scratched his bristly cheek and regarded Edwin with mystification. “He went by the name of Henry Wade. He and his pards murdered Joss Padgett and his whole family last fall, just as the diggings were closing down for the winter. That murdering scum – there wasn’t but five respectable women in the whole of the Yuba River diggings and that bastard …” the miner spat feelingly into the mud at their feet, “Had to go and kill one of ‘em. They never found the girl’s body – only the Almighty knows what he did to that poor child, after what they did to Mrs. Padgett.”
Edwin turned as pale as death; even his lips were grey. “How … how did they find catch Wade?”
The miner spat again. “The rotten son of a whore had Padgett’s watch and gold fob – and tried to sell it to a man who recognized it – and recognized Wade for the murdering scum that he is. Say, boy – you look like you got a personal interest in this hanging.”
“I do,” Edwin nodded, still grey-lipped. “Mr. Padgett was kin to my family, back in the States.”
“Then you came fortuitous,” the miner growled, looking even more like a bear. “But you better hurry, if you want to see justice being done. The hanging’s set for nine o’clock. They been a’ building the gallows ever since the jury pronounced. They know there’s be a big crowd, coming to see Henry Wade hanged high.”
“I don’t want to miss it,” Edwin nodded again, still pale but with a steely tone to his voice that Fredi found quite unsettling. So, obviously, did O’Malley, who looked between them both, before replacing his hat on his head.
“Boyo … while sure I am in the favor of justice administered rightly upon the wicked … I am not one for taking it lightly as entertainment – ‘tis a sober and serious thing, a life taken, and while I would attend to console a friend unjustly punished, to support him in his last moments before facing God as the great judge and law-giver of all …”
“I don’t want to miss it, O’Malley” Edwin said, adamant. “I want to watch, as close as I can. I would watch him die, strangling slowly as the noose tightens, just as he … For the murder of my kin …”
“Then you shall,” the bear-like miner clapped his own ragged cloth cap on his head, and took Edwin by the shoulder, and bellowed to the crowd around. “Here – give way, give way! Here’s a lad who’s kin to the Padgetts of Gold Hill – come to see justice done, and a righteous sentence enacted on the guilty! Make way, make way!”

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