Burnished to bronzes and golds and bordered with easy shadows, the California high country gleamed. Waving sawdust grasses, butterflies flitting and dusting their wings on the poppy tops, the vistas were pristine. Steep-walled arroyos, rocky crags eroded over time and troubles crisscrossed the hillsides making the hilltops near unreachable, except by mule or by footfall. Tall, straight pines, armies of them, anchored the rocky hills in place, their needles cushioning and scenting the journey.
Captain Sutter knew his fortune lay on these mountains. Granted sovereign of one of the first Central Californian massive ranchos, the Captain was neither a rancher nor a Captain. Having arrived in California via Hawaii and Alaska, he had, however, found his Utopia and was determined to expand his holdings and make a go in this most perfect of environs.
Entertaining trappers and traders and men of trade, he hired, then partnered with, a crafty fellow by name of James Marshall. Mr. Marshall, himself a man of travels and great journeys, had reached the end of his line. This place smelled of heat, warmth in every step. This was the first time he felt at peace and at home. Handy himself in the building trades, he and the Captain reached an agreement to harvest this bounty, contracting to build a sawmill to cut and slice and distribute the multitude of robust pines. This California, this land of golden promise, was only destined to grow. Both men knew it, and both felt destined determined they’d lead the way. The Captain, he was the money and the motivation. Mr. Marshall, he was the brains and the brawn.
Suited them both just fine.
Till the one fine afternoon, wetted through and through from expanding the shallows of the lower waterway feeding away from the nearly completed mill, a solo Mr. Marshall spied a glint in the ripples out the corner of his ever watchful eye. Thinking it was one of the slick silverfish bottom feeders, a delicacy amongst the less civilized population of his workforce, he went back to sloshing his soggy boots and rusty spade , mucking up a cloud of dirt and debris from the creek’s bed.
Here, now, there was another one. And another. Surely he’d scared them suckers off by now. But as the dirty haze settled, the floor of the stream bed fairly glistened, winking at him, yellow and bright.
Wetting his lips, dare he look? Mr. Marshall tossed his shovel up high onto the apex of the bank and bent fairly double for a better view.
Lord, Lord, he knew! He knew for sure before he knew!
Gold! Gold! He jumped for joy, losing his hat in the process, then waiting impatiently for the stream to settle back to still.
And still, yes, it was there! More now, tucked between the pebbles and mire! There was no pretending nor questioning nor rubbing his eyes! This was gold in these here hills!
And James Marshall, partner of Captain John Sutter, had discovered it!
Couldn’t let it get away, could he? Couldn’t let it travel downstream, lost forever in the twists and turns and rocky outcroppings of the watercourse. There may be more but for now, this was what there was and he was bound and determined to gather it up and carry it back, somewhere, proud and maybe, maybe, rich!
Staying as still as a man in his excitable condition possible could, he stood feet planted in the water, twisting this way and that, looking for a jar or a plate or something to gather his findings. Durned spade he’d tossed up top, couldn’t reach it for losing sight of his findings.
“Hey, Senor Marshall, what work you got there?” a quietly accented voice queried from somewhere behind him.
Nearly jumping and almost shouting, but not, control and stealth overcame his excitement. Mr. Marshall calmly turned, leaving the stream nearly unstirred, standing calf deep in the meandering water, hatless, spadeless, nearly speechless.
Gathering what wits he could, he ventured a smile.
“Ah, Paco, yes, Paco, hello there,” nearly a whisper, “I’m doing my best to deepen this race so the water can move down the line faster.”
Was that suspicion in Paco’s eyes? Was that a tin cup in his hands?! Mr. Marshall struggled to look Paco full on. Torqued backwards as he was, he was hard-pressed to make full claim of Paco’s view, but he couldn’t have him peering into the water. Lord, he was feeling a fever.
“Want some help, Senor Marshall?”
Paco knows! Paco knows!
No, Paco couldn’t know. Couldn’t possibly. Look up! Look up!
And the eyes of the man on the bank obediently followed his.
“Ah, no, Paco, you’re a good man, but no. I have this under control,” Boots filled with water, breathing heavy, face pale below the weathering and leathering, he felt anything but. Certain, too, he looked anything but.
Paco’s eyes flitted on toward spade resting atop the high bank above, then back to his boss.
“You are sure, Senor?”
“Sure. Yes. Sure. I am sure, thank you.” Small cough, then, “I hear Ernesto and his men up top of the race are needing a hand, though. Maybe, ah, you could head on up there?”
Why in tarnation was he asking, he was in charge here!
“Go on up, Paco! Go on! No sense lollygaggin’ ’round here, there’s work to be done. Step on, Sir!”
Pausing just a second too long, Paco turned to go. Then,
“You be wanting your shovel, Senor?” Paco tossed his cup to the side and broached a step into the stream, clearly aiming to ford the shallows and climb the slippery bank opposite to retrieve the tool.
Mid step, Paco squinted long at James Marshall.
“Ah, no, Paco, I shall gather it myself. Move quickly, then, move quickly. Work to be done.” Paco lowered his chin slowly, eyes on the twisted man in the stream, and backed away through the slippery mud to the rutted road leading up the low bank of the race.
Mr. Marshall gave him what he hoped was a jaunty salute and watched the quiet man make his way up the pathway and out of sight.
Leaping quickly to the lower bank, he landed awkwardly, spied the discarded tin cup, and grasped it maniacly in both hands. He then leapt back into the stream’s center, again waiting for the debris to settle, sweating now, and glancing over his shoulder.
Some time later, evening dropping, shadows growing, night birds tuning up, James Marshall, cup in hand, with the other atop tight, slipped near to the bench of project woodworker, Mr. Scott.
“Scott,” he hissed.
“What’s ‘at?!” Mr. Scott lifting his head abruptly, hollering over the racket of his hammering and pounding.
Shaking his head roughly, “Scott, “Mr. Marshall hissed again, “Quiet, sir. Quiet. I need your help.”
“Hang on then, hang on,” He laboriously laid his hammer aside, regretfully it seemed, and wiped his hands on his leather apron. Marshall could barely contain himself, but feeling now the need of an ally, he stiffened, but waited.
Tools in place, neat to the point of excess, Mr. Scott turned his attention fully to Marshall.
“What is it you have there, Sir? ” politely, nodding purposefully at the cup clutched tightly to Marshall’s chest.
Suddenly struck purely dumb, his mouth couldn’t find proper words. He finally mumbled, “I found it. I found it.”
Like urging a child, “Well, let’s see here what you found, Mr. Marshall,” and reached to take the cup.
And childishly snatching it back, Marshall peered underneath his hand, looking deep inside. Satisfied the contents were intact, he took a deep, raggedy breath.
“Sir, it’s gold. I’ve found gold.”
“Did you hear me, man? I found gold! Down yonder in the lower stream, I found gold, Sir!”
Marshall strode within arm’s reach, “Mr. Scott, Sir! I said–”
Stonily, “Sir, I heard you. It simply cannot be, ” He looked down at his scarred and bruised carpenter’s hands, “It simply cannot be, Sir.”
Marshall pushed the tin cup under the man’s nose, “Sir, it IS gold! I know it to be nothing else! It’s yellow and sparkles and glistens like the sun! I know it to be gold, Sir!”
Then hushed, “And Mr. Scott, we must keep this to ourselves. We will be overrun with vagabonds and drifters and scallywags! Our work here must be done, and we do, Sir, have work to be completed! We are obligated by contract, Sir. You are obligated, Sir.”
Even closer still, “You do agree, don’t you, Mr. Scott? We have work to do.”
Near frozen, barely audible even in the evening quiet, Mr. Scott’s hollow gaze met the harsher one of his employer.
Breathily, beaded upper lip, “Mr. Marshall, I will abide by my agreement. I will remain silent until you allow me to speak.”
“I am, Sir, a man of my word. I am, Sir, a company man.”
And James Marshall relaxed.
Then, from beyond the stand of trees, another voice, accented this time, took his turn.
“And I, Sir, am merely a man.”
Easy way, hard way
rivers around bends
gold rush–don’t tell, I will, I won’t, you won’t you will, later
I’m a company man.
I am but a man.