Lust for Gold (MM)
In 1849, the promise of gold brings many a man to California, but most find more hardship than riches.
Jesse Quinn, a golden-haired twenty-year-old is among them. He settles into the gold camp of Whiskey Slide to work with two other men in an effort that barely yields enough to keep them alive. With merchants charging exorbitant prices for provisions, it’s said men dig for food, not gold.
After hardship and disappointment, Jesse moves to another camp, Dutch Flat, where he takes up with the stern and silent Abel Munday. As the two work Abel’s claim with success, things take a positive turn for Jesse. Can Jesse bring some light into the darkness that’s plagued Abel much of his life? Together, they just might be able to find something richer than gold.
The river has a sort of call, smooth at times, almost soothing, then, when the bed turns rocky, whooshing like a big wind. Birdsong accompanies this and I find myself at peace which I'd begun to think impossible. Of course I think of Dieter, deprived of such pleasure. I recall throwing dirt into that hellish hole, how I manned the shovel, and I have to stop and sit a spell to give him his due.
We'd hardly begun, which angers me some. Not only was his life cut short, we also were and I feel awful with that loss, then worse at indulging myself in thoughts when Dieter has suffered far worse. Best I'd put him into the past and keep him there. Just wish I knew how.
It's late afternoon when I come to a camp that's barely hanging on. No more than tents, it bears the scars of furious digging, holes all along the river bank and alongside them mounds of dirt piled high. In with this is man's debris, his cans and bottles, his bits of rope and busted tools. I find some men outside a tent and inquire as to where I might be.
"You Bet," says one.
"Doesn't look to be going good," I offer.
"Gold played out," says another. "We've about give up."
At their makeshift store I buy two cans of peaches, one to eat now, one tomorrow. I then leave this sorry spot, keeping on up river, hoping for better. When night comes, I spread my bedding under a tree, lay down, and roll it over me so I'm no more than a log on the ground. I sleep well, likely due to the walking but also, I'd venture, due to being on my own.
Next morning I wake to a squirrel studying this new log in his neighborhood. He's got a nut in hand, but has stopped eating when he sees movement in the log. He then scampers off, leaving behind his breakfast. "Sorry," I tell him as I laugh, catching myself with shame at such levity in the face of Dieter's loss. Being alive as I am, I've no right to laugh at anything.
After washing up in the river and eating my last can of peaches, I fill up on water, then pack my gear and move on. The day is cold as yet, trees refusing much sunlight, but by noon I'm again warm. Ma Nature is downright generous, seeing how it's late October.
I follow a rough road that runs about fifty feet from shore, at least I think it's a road. I'm hoping there's something up ahead and when there comes behind me a freight wagon full of boxes and bags, I ask for a ride. I'm welcomed aboard to sit next to the driver who seems starved for company.
"Where you headed?" I ask.
"Dutch Flat. It's about five miles up."
I issue a sigh of relief. "How's it going up there?"
"Well, I've got a full load of goods for the store which should tell you something. They're finding some gold, but so far nothing big enough to start a stampede which maybe works in their favor."
"Yuba River is said to have a big strike," I offer.
"I heard that," says the driver. "Good for us. Keep things quiet here long as we can."
Sometime later he asks me if I'm hungry. "Starving," I tell him.
He pulls a sack from under the seat and hands it over. "Ham sandwiches in there," he says. "Always bring me a picnic back from town when making the supply run. Help yourself."
I've been long enough in the diggings for a mere sandwich to be as good as a home cooked meal. I eat one and ask can I have another.
"Go ahead," says the driver. "I've got plenty."
By the time we reach Dutch Flat in late afternoon, I'm feeling better than I have in days. The sun has warmed me through, my belly is full, and a man cannot ask for more. The trees appear greener, birdsong more plentiful, though I know it's just me thinking that. Still, I enjoy myself. Then Dieter comes to mind and I feel shame at indulging, but how could he begrudge me liking a fine day? Or even going on with my life? Wish I could ask him.