“Last week,” he began, sleep forgotten, warming to the story as if from memory, growing more loquacious the while, “for all anybody knew I could’ve been dead a year. A year ago I was traveling with Frémont’s army, supposedly writing a profile of him for the Tribune.
Boy, that man knew how to treat a reporter. I wasn’t in any hurry to finish. I guess I took too long, because Mr. Greeley sent word I was to file immediately or not bother coming back.
I was mulling the choice when I heard a story from an old Miwok woman about gold in the foothills of the Sierra. So I stuffed my Frémont notes into my saddlebag, waited till lights-out, lammed out of that man’s army and made for the mountains. If I didn’t get rich, at least I’d get a better story. Maybe I’d get both.
So I knocked around California for a few months, chasing down one rumor after another. I rode south almost to Placerita to check out the gold strike from ’42, but it was pretty well played out.
All the time I kept hearing about this fellow Sutter, a Swiss colonel who’d gone up the Americano from Yerba Buena and set himself up king of the Sacramento.
Last month I figured I’d go and see for myself. On my way, I met a talkative Mexican—begging your pardon—who’d heard that there was gold up below Tahoe, but that Sutter’s marshal hadn’t got around to checking it out yet.
Once we pulled in, who do I see but Jim Marshall, the best carpenter in Frémont’s army. He was on his way up the trail as foreman to a pack of Mormons, aiming to build Sutter his first sawmill that wouldn’t fall over if you pissed on it.
Well, Jim remembered me. He’s a good guy—a little soft, maybe, but honest. So I made him a deal. He wouldn’t have to lie, I was very specific about that. But I’d work for him at half-wages if he’d keep it off the books. He assumed I was on a fresh story, and so I was.
All the while, I sought out whatever news came to hand. The war—call it Mexican, call it American, or call it what they all are, a Real Estate War—the war was over, but the peace talks in Mexico City were taking forever. Typical diplomats. Every Sabbath an announcement was expected, and every Sabbath, none came.
Lately, though, the negotiators at the Guadalupe-Hidalgo villa looked to be putting on steam again. If they didn’t sign something, the war might flare back up. If that happened, the Washington delegation might get recalled home in a hurry,— where the winds were colder, their wives closer, and a good mole nowhere in evidence.
Anyway, Marshall and a bunch of us traipsed up into the foothills, with all our equipment banging and clanging off the wagon like a jug band. He picked out a riverbank for the mill,— a pretty place, well-forested and sheltered from the wind. Next day we went to work.
I kept my eyes open the whole time. Every chance I got, which wasn’t often, I wandered off with a fishpole, creel and a dipper hanging off my belt, ransacking the terrain for a sparkle. Mormons probably thought I had a wench up there.
Those Mormons worked pretty fast once the Miwoks taught ’em upstream from down. Young Charley Bennett finally figured out which end of a saw was which, and Scotty the carpenter was almost ready to start in on the mill wheel.
And then the sky opened. It rained for a week, let up for a day and rained some more. I borrowed an oilcloth slicker from the cook and took to squelching around the foothills.
At first there was nothing. I trudged through the mud and underbrush in circles. By the second day, I could go a full hour without getting lost. But my creel stayed empty, with nary a nugget or even a trout to weigh it down.
On the night of the full moon, I resolved to stay out after dark. Either it’d be bright enough to shine up a nugget, or dark enough to stumble across a bear,— by this time, I didn’t much care which.
Once the sun dropped behind the ridgeline, I made out a mossy cliff nearby, just starting to glisten in the moon. Halfway up the side, a jagged spot showed itself, darker than the cliff around it. I tear-assed over to the riprap under it and looked back up.
Just as I’d thought, it was a cavern. I scrabbled up the scree toward it. With every step, a tiny gravel avalanche slid me back almost as far. Finally I gained a purchase at the very top of the pile and chinned myself over the lip.
There in the cave, dim in the infiltrating starshine, I saw a hoard of gold beyond counting.”
“How much?” I interjected, stirring as if from a trance.
“Didn’t I just say it was beyond counting?”
“About how much?”
“Am I telling this story or you?”
“I thought you were sleepy.”
“Windier by the minute, to my ear. Monsieur Vignes always says to avoid ten-dollar words. He says they’re just showing off.”
Navarre looked pained, as if from an old wound.
“Ten-dollar words. Kee-rist. Just because you don’t have ten dollars for one of my words doesn’t mean the whole world is broke.”
“If your word is ten dollars and mine is five, where are most customers going to shop?”
“Look, kid. If this shed caught fire, which book would you save?”
“That’s easy. Monsieur Vignes bought me the whole Martin Chuzzlewit, bound in buckram. With deckle edges.”
“How much did it cost?”
“I don’t know. A lot, I bet.”
“Is that why you’d save it from a fire? Because it cost a lot?”
“Partly. Partly I just like it.”
“Pretty big book for a little kid like you.”
“You understand every word in it?”
“Most of ’em. I look up the rest.”
“He looks up the rest. What in?”
“Monsieur Vignes gave me a Webster’s. It’s a library all by itself.”
“Webster’s, eh?” Navarre smiled. “I were you, I’d hang on to that one. Let Vignes hang onto his Dickens til the fire burns out. May I continue?”
I let him, and kept any further interruptions to a minimum. That may have been a mistake. By degrees, his telling grew purple as a hanged man’s tongue.
This is part four of five from a new short story. See also part one, part two, part three, and part five.
Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.
David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at email@example.com.
Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/