The far side of the pass presented Charlie and I with favorable terrain, and by dusk we had crossed beneath the snow line, where we set up for the night. In the morning, we slept late and rode at a moderate pace into California. We entered a dense and tall forest of pines late in the afternoon and happened on a small, winding stream, the sight of which gave us pause. Here before us was the very thing which had induced thousands of previously intelligent men and women to abandon their families and homes forever. The both of us stared at it, saying nothing. Finally Charlie could not help himself; he dismounted and squatted beside the stream, pulling up a handful of wet sand and rooting through it with his finger.
I spied a tent on the opposite of the water, a quarter mile to the north. A lone face, bearded and extremely dirty, peered out from behind it. I held up my hand in greeting and the face darted back. ‘I believe we have us a real live prospector,’ I said.
‘Pretty far out to be working, don’t you think?’
‘For all we know. Shall we pay him a visit and see how he is doing?’
Charlie threw the sand back. ‘There is nothing in this river, brother.’
‘But you’re not curious to know?’
‘If you want to check in with him, you go ahead while I make my toilet. But I cannot invest my own time with every curiosity.’
He walked into the forest and I rode Tub upstream, calling my greeting from across the water, but there was no sign of the bearded man. I saw a pair of boots in front of his tent and a small fire in a pit; there was a saddle on the ground, but no horse that I could see. I called out once again, and again I heard nothing. Had the man run barefoot into the woods rather than share news of unknown riches? But no, the sight of the blighted camp told me the prospector was not having any successes. Here was a man greedy for gold but not hearty enough to brave the wasps’ nest that was California proper. He would find nothing, he would starve, he would rave and expire—I could see his naked body picked over by blackbirds. ‘One of these cold mornings,’ I said.
There came the sound of a rifle being cocked behind me. ‘Cold mornings what?’ said a voice. I raised my hands and the prospector began laughing, relishing his position.
‘Tunnel under the river,’ he said. ‘Weren’t thinking of that, were you?’ He jabbed my thigh painfully with his gun muzzle and I began to turn. ‘Look at me, I’ll shoot your face off, bastard,’ he hissed.
‘There’s no need for this,’ I said. ‘I don’t mean you any harm.’
He jabbed my leg again. ‘Maybe I do you, think of that?’ His laughter was high-pitched and wistful and I thought he had likely gone crazy or was going crazy. I realized with annoyance that Charlie had been correct to leave the man alone. ‘You’re a hunter, that it?’ he asked. ‘You looking for the red-haired she-bear?’
‘I don’t know about a red-haired she-bear,’ I said.
‘There’s a red-haired she-bear near here. Mayfield put the price of a hundred dollars on her and now the hunters are going mad for the pelt. I saw her two miles north of camp yesterday morning. Took a shot but couldn’t get in close enough.’
‘I’m not interested in it one way or the other, and I don’t know anyone called Mayfield.’
He jabbed my leg again. ‘Wasn’t you just with him, you son of a bitch? And him checking the sand in my riverbed?’
‘You’re talking about my brother, Charlie. We’re heading south from Oregon Territory. We’ve never been through this way and don’t know anyone in these parts.’
‘Mayfield’s big boss around here. Sends men over to upset my camp when I’m in town fetching supplies. Sure that wasn’t him a minute ago? I thought I saw his stupid, laughing face.’
‘That’s only Charlie. He’s ducked into the woods to make his toilet. We’re on our way south to work the rivers.’
I heard him step around to Tub’s far side, and then back. ‘Where’s your gear?’ he asked. ‘You say you’re going to work the rivers but you got no gear?’
‘We will buy our gear in Sacramento.’
‘Right off the top then, you’re losing money. Only a fool buys his gear in town.’
I had nothing to say to this. He jabbed my thigh and said, ‘I’m talking to you.’ I said nothing and he jabbed me.
‘Stop jabbing me like that.’
He jabbed me. ‘Don’t like it, do you?’ He jabbed me.
‘I want you to stop.’
‘Think I care what you want!’
He jabbed me and held the gun against my smarting leg. A twig snapped in the distance and I felt the gun go slack as the prospector turned to look. I grabbed the rifle barrel and yanked it away. The prospector lit out for the woods and I turned and pulled the trigger but the rifle was not loaded. I was reaching for my pistol when Charlie stepped from behind a tree and casually shot the prospector as he ran past. It was a head shot, which took the back off his skull like a cap in the wind. I dismounted and limped over to the twitching body. My leg was stinging terribly and I was possessed with a rage. The man’s brain was painted in purple blood, bubbling foam emerging from its folds; I raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognizable as the head of a man. When I removed my boot it was as though I were pulling it from wet mud. Now I walked away from the body, without purpose and for no reason besides needing to escape my own anger. Charlie called my name but did not pursue me, knowing to leave me alone when I am like this. I walked a half mile and sat beneath a broad pine, tensing and untensing my body with my knees against my chest. I thought I would break my own jaw from clenching, and stuck my knife’s leather sheath between my teeth.
Rising to my knees, I pulled down my pants to check the state of my leg. The skin was inflamed and I could make out the perfect circular shape of the barrel, or series of barrels, a half-dozen red zeros—the sight of these made me frustrated all over again and I wished the prospector might come back to life so I could kill him myself, but slowly. I stood, thinking I would return to mutilate his body further, to unload my pistol in his stomach, but after a moment I decided against it, thankfully. My pants were still down and after collecting my emotions I took up my organ to compromise myself. As a young man, when my temper was proving problematic, my mother instructed me to do this as a means of achieving calm, and I have found it a useful practice ever since. Once accomplished I headed back to the river, feeling empty and cold inside but no longer angry. I cannot understand the motivation of a bully, is what it is. This is the one thing that makes me unreasonable.
I located the dead prospector’s tunnel, so-called. I had imagined a head-high underground pathway with wooden supports and hanging lanterns, but it was barely large-enough around to crawl through, and as it was located at the stream’s thinnest point, only a few feet from one side to the other. We dragged the prospector over and pushed him into the hole. I rode Tub over top of this, marching from one side of the stream to the other to cave it in. We had found little on his person, a pocket knife, a pipe, eleven dollars in small coins, and a letter, which we buried with him, and which read: ‘Mother, I am lonely and the days are long here. My horse has passed and he was a dear friend to me. I think of your cooking and wonder what I am doing. I believe I will come home soon. I have near two hundred dollars in gold dust. It is not the pile I had hoped for, but good enough for now. How is Sis? I do not miss her so much. Did she marry that Fat man? I hope he took her far away! The smell of smoke is in my nostrils always and I haven’t had a laugh in such a long, long while. Mother! I think I will leave here very soon. Loveingly, Your Own Son.’
Thinking of it now I suppose it would have been best if I had posted the letter. But as I said, when my temper is up everything goes black and narrow for me, and such notions were not in my mind. It is lonesome to think of a headless skeleton under that cold, running water. I do not regret that the man is dead but wish I had kept better hold of my emotions. The loss of control does not frighten me so much as embarrass me.
Once the prospector was out of sight, Charlie and I began rooting around in search of his gold. It was not difficult to find. He had set it away from the camp twenty yards, marked with a small crucifix fashioned from twigs. It did not look like two hundred dollars’ worth, but I had never dealt with the powder and chunky flakes, and so could not be sure. We divided it fifty-fifty and I emptied my share in an old tobacco pouch I found buried in my saddle bag.
Charlie spent the night in the shelter and I had tried to also but could not stomach the lingering smell, both the dead prospector’s and the horse’s, which had been butchered, its meat lying on a makeshift drying rack at the rear of the tent. I slept beside the fire pit rather than contend with these fumes, passing a night under the stars. It was cold, but the cold did not have what I have heard called ‘winter weight’—it chilled your flesh, but not your muscle and bone. Charlie emerged from the shelter half an hour past the dawn, looking a decade older and a good bit dirtier also. He slapped his chest to show the cloud of dust rise away from him; he decided a morning bath was in order, and pulled one of the prospector’s pans to the water’s edge to fill it, afterward placing this on the fire. He then located a deep spot in the stream, stripped down and leapt in, shrieking loudly at its coldness. I sat on the bank and watched him splashing and singing; he had not had anything to drink the night before and there had been no other people around to upset his volatile nature, and I found myself becoming sentimental by this rare show of innocent happiness. Charlie had often been glad and singing as a younger man, before we began working for the Commodore, when he became guarded and hard, so it was sad in a way to watch him frolic in that shimmering river, with the tall snowy mountains walling us in. He was revisiting his earlier self but only briefly, and I knew he would return to his present incarnation soon enough.
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