A story about a kid and his Dad en route to California during the Gold Rush.
It was early and bright outside. A beam of sunlight broke through two steel-colored clouds painting our wagon yellow and reflecting light off of the front and back iron tires. Pa was tilting his head forward using the brim of his hat to block out the light and floating dirt.
“Why don’t you hop off the wagon and feed the horses. We got a few minutes till this dust settles in front of us. Can hardly see my own hand right in front of my eyes.” He said while leaning back and pouring the remaining drops of whiskey from his flask into his mouth. He then twisted around to look at me. His face was long and his hair was dark, like tree bark. His forearm momentarily blacked out the light that had been browning my face for the last three months, or four months, well, somewhere right around there. It gets tough keeping track of time around these parts. I grabbed the pail of carrots left over from last night’s supper and jumped down from the wagon side. My feet sank six inches into the ash-like dust. Pa wiped his blackened face and rested his eyes which were turned filthy from the sight-blinding dirt. I took a handful of brown carrots and handfed each mule. I turned my head from the western wind while it picked up the ground like slack lime and bullwhipped grains of sand against my face. Conditions have been hot and ruinous to stock, but word on the street is that a man by the name of James Marshall struck gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. Me and Pa are on our way across the country to try and make it in the panning business ourselves. Back home, things are not well on a count of a whirlwind twister that took our house, our land, and our dog. My Ma and my sister Bernadette are staying at my grandmother’s. Bernadette sleeps on the floor of the guest room and Ma sleeps on a small bed with her feet hanging off. After about 95 days of travel from Oshkosh, Nebraska, to Carson City, Nevada, we still got some bacon, ham, rice, dried fruits, bread, flour, sugar, rice, molasses, butter, coffee and tea left. Luckily Ma nagged us to pack extra while she dried her tears during our departure. Some folks are calling it the Gold Rush and others are calling it some sort of California dream.
I wouldn’t call it much of a dream. I haven’t seen a woman in over 100 days. I bet Levi and Frank Jr. are bendin’ elbows with a different Jane every night back home. It ain’t no fuss though, family is first. And there ain’t no one I’d rather be on the road with then my Pa. Now he is somebody you ride the river with. Every day I wake up, I’m greeted with his narrow dirty face, a pale of water, a dry mouth, and an endless landscape of dessert that’s as red as the devil himself. The road in front of us is so thick with muck and dirt it can swallow a grown man whole. No matter how sore our hands get or how tired our eyes become, Pa always looks forward. Calloused from a life of woodwork and sweat, his hands hold tight the reins that will guide our mules to San Francisco.
“There ain’t nothin’ more important than gettin’ what we came here for son, ya can’t ever quit. I don’t care what God puts in your way. That damn twister done took everything I’ve ever owned or cared for, and this dust ain’t ever gonna stop so saddle up and take the reins.”
We finally made it to Mary’s River 35 miles outside of San Francisco. The river bank is lined with dead horses and the rotting carcasses of grown men who’ve succumbed to what mostly looks like disease and starvation. “Eyes ahead,” Pa tells me but I can’t help but notice the greyish tint to each man’s lifeless eyes while they lay just feet from the smooth swift of the current. The area around the river is completely destitute of water. The river itself looks to stretch about 300 or so yards across which poses a fatal threat to even the best swimmer. Eventually the water will rise and wash the bodies away to their final resting places. The wood from their wagons will rot and wash away too leaving behind a few metal tools for mining, farming, and maintenance of the wagon. The guns and ammunition will probably withstand Mother Nature’s wear and tear a little longer than the clothes and blankets will, but eventually they will go too.
“These men traveled a pretty rough road eh pop?” I said while fixated on the horror all around us.
“Everyone up and goes sooner or later. Like a circus.” He said while adjusting his position on the splintered seat below him. “We ain’t goin’ anywhere cuz’ we got enough food to do this trip twice. God rest their soul but these men didn’t know what they were gettin’ themselves into.”
“Like a circus… Just up and goes?” I questioned. “Probably a little less juggling though huh Pa?”
“You got that right. Ya mind gettin’ me my tobacco behind my seat by the mule carriage?”
I stood up and put my plate of rice near my feet on the ground of the wagon. The wagon shook as it edged over some sort of hole in the ground. I regained my balance and picked up Pa’s nearly empty bag of tobacco which sat near the rear of the wagon next to a bag of beans and a water bucket.
“Not much left here Pa, you holding out till we make it all the way West?”
“Ah, we’ll stop off in Hang Town; it’s a couple miles outside mining territory.” He said while rolling what looked like and would be his last cigarette on this trip.
The wagon stunted again and took me off my feet. My elbow dragged across the dry surface of the bench splitting open and spilling blood onto my plate of rice.
“You okay boy?” Pa shouted as dry black blood from my elbow crept along the wagon floor making its way onto the ground below us.
“Sure Pa, what’d we hit?”
“I got no idea but we aint’ movin’. Wait here and wrap up that elbow while I see what’s holdin’ us up.”
I grabbed an old dusty rag from the mule carriage and tied it around my elbow. The pain was surprisingly non-existent.
“Looks like a wooden hound from one of these other wagons is caught in the iron tire. Hand me a hammer would ya?”
Pa laid down below the wagon in front of the leading left tire. His thin body was brown against the ground. He placed his hat to his side and stuck his arm out for the hammer.
“Now hop on the wagon and hold those reins tight, I don’t need these horses turnin’ me into a flapjack after I take care of this hound.”
As I climbed back onto the wagon, I heard the splintering of wood and then a crack. The mules kicked and lunged forward as if they had been spurred. The wooden hound had broken, freeing the wagon to roll forward just a foot. I jumped off and knelt down beside the wagon bed.
“Pa? Pa answer me. C’mon Pa”
His face was still until a single cough let out a stream of blood that would soon join my own underneath the wagon. Pa is dead. His eyes now lifeless like all the other 49’rs lying beside the river. I pulled him back up onto the wagon bed and laid him down on the sheets of linen and couldn’t help but have a cry. I slept next to him that night and dreamt of home. Ma was there and so was my sister Bernadette. Me and Pa were telling stories about all the beautiful places we had scene on the trip to California. We told them about the rolling hills of Wyoming and all the wolves. And about conquering the Rockies with only three mules and some elbow Grease.
The next morning I woke up to a dry mouth and an eerie river. The mules stood ankle high in grime occasionally lifting one hoof and then the other. The son bounced off their hind legs while they waited patiently. I filled up three pales of water and set one in front of each of their noses. A thin layer of dust rested on top of the carrot pale and my elbow was sore. While the mules ate, I thought about turning back. “There ain’t nothin’ more important than gettin’ what we came here for son, ya can’t ever quit. I don’t care what God puts in your way. Your Ma and sister need us now, and this dust ain’t ever gonna stop so saddle up and take the reins.” Pa’s words bounced around in my head while I stared at the road ahead. 24 miles till San Francisco, there aint’ no turning back now.
The remainder of the trip went by slow. Pa rested under the wagon cover and I made it to San Francisco in just over a day. The mining territory seemed to be growing by the minute with men pouring in through the Golden Gate one after another. I saw hundreds of tired looking diggers hunched over with shovels in their hands and pans at their feet digging what looked like to be their own graves. I held the reins and directed the mules toward the base of a cliff in the distance. After about a half an hour, I hopped down from the wagon bed and tied the reins around a wooden post that marked the beginning of the mountain face. I hauled Pa’s body out of the Wagon. He was heavy and motionless. His thin structure was covered by a white sheet. I laid him down flat on the ground and said the only prayer I knew. I grabbed one of the two shovels from the mule carriage and pointed the tip of it at a sandy spot in the ground. I placed my foot on the mouth of the shovel and transferred my weight from body to foot. The metal tip sank into the ground almost effortlessly and Pa’s final resting place began to look more and more comfortable the deeper I dug. I tried to round out the edges of the dirt floor to compliment his bony structure. I guess it didn’t matter much though. Pretty soon he’d be as much a part of the earth as this mountain was, or the gold that those men were looking for, or the dusty trail that we took to get here for that matter. I dropped the shovel near the foot of the hole and rested on one knee beside Pa. My hands bled from the dig so I held one over the gaping wound in the ground and let a couple drops fall onto the loose bed of dirt at the bottom. “A little of me in there with ya Pa,” I thought. At that point, it was the first time in the whole trip I was scared to my soul.
I continued to fill in the dug-up dirt until all that remained were a few small rocks and an arrowhead I found during the dig, an Indian relic. It was sundown now and the light bent around the cliff-side performing an almost perfect dance on top of the dirt in front of me. I thought of Ma, then of Bernadette. I bent down and picked up the arrowhead and slid it into my pocket. I then grabbed the remaining shovel from the mule carriage and started to dig.