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IN OMAHA, NEBRASKA, MACK Chance swabbed floors in a saloon for a few days. On the afternoon that he received his wages, the barkeep's bulldog bit him, and for the next week he was dizzy with a fever. Limping along a rutted pike leading west, he tried to convince himself that the salesman was wrong when he said, "Son, you're crazy."
Outside Kearney, a farmer shot at him with both barrels of a shotgun. Mack dove over the fence, stolen apples spilling from his pockets. He despised thieving, and being forced to be a thief, but the apples provided his only nourishment for the next four days.
With his mouth dusty-dry, he ignored warnings in the guidebook and sank to his knees beside the sludgy Platte and drank. The water had a peculiar acidic taste. By nightfall he lay on the ground, clutching his gut while his bowels boiled. He was ill for a week.
On the prairie he watched a Union Pacific express flash westward, a long, rattling segmented monster made of mail, freight, and first- and second-class passenger cars. One of the latter, packed with pale people in dark clothes, had a canvas banner nailed to its side.
The train raised an enormous cloud of dust. A few of the excursionists spied Mack standing beside the right-of-way and waved mockingly, and he clenched his teeth and trudged on after the train, the dust settling like yellow flour on his hair, his ears, his eyelids.
Camped near Fremont's Ford, where the trail branched away for lower California, he sat reading T. Fowler Haines by the light of the full moon.
His father had kept a small shelf of California books, yellowing books, mostly secondhand, but full of bright visions, extravagant promises. But T. Fowler Haines was Pa's favorite. Like the other guidebook authors, Haines gave mileage and described landmarks on the old Oregon Trail and, farther west, the California Cutoff. Mack intended to follow this route partway, though he didn't need to rely slavishly on Haines. Almost forty years after Haines had made his trip as an "eye-witness" and written it up, many more hamlets and towns dotted the route, along with railway lines and serviceable roads. Even in the mountains, Mack expected to depend less on Haines than on the transcontinental rails. What he treasured in Haines were the wonders.
So he read again some of Haines's excerpts from the old Spanish novel that had given California its name. The novelist said California was peopled by incredibly strong black women, Amazons, and "their arms were all of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts which they tamed and rode There were many griffins, on account of the ruggedness of the country."
That night he dreamed of the griffins and the black women instead of hanged men, snow, death.
Sometimes he sheltered in a barn or a stable, sometimes under a tree in a downpour, unless there was lightning. He saw spectacular things: a cyclone's funnel cloud, a prairie fire burning over an expanse of ten city blocks, a herd of bison grazing—Buffalo Bill hadn't slain them all, evidently.
His clothes tended to stiffen and smell despite conscientious washing whenever he found a suitable stream. He occasionally caught a ride in a wagon, but mostly he stayed on foot. The excruciating pain in his thighs and calves that had tortured and impeded him during the first part of the journey now reduced to a steady ache. He was discovering new muscles all over his body, and he'd not been exactly weak before.
Foraging food was the hardest part. Sometimes he dined on nothing but berries and water. He lost weight, a lot of weight.
Rather than follow the northerly curve of the railroad up through Wyoming and down again to the Salt Lake, he struck more directly westward, for Colorado. Wherever he could, he traded work for food and a bed, or a few cents. He cut and stacked firewood, slopped hogs, whitewashed the interior of a Grange hall.
As the land grew flatter and more desolate, he tended to forget that he lived in a highly civilized country where Grover Cleveland was president, the great Civil War was more than twenty years in the past, and men once considered young heroes were now garrulous old storytellers.
It was an age of plenty, an age of marvels, with Pullman Palace Cars and steam-driven elevators, public street illumination and incandescent lamps perfected by Mr. Edison, telephone service beginning to link major cities, and three years ago, the new Brooklyn Bridge—an architectural wonder to rival the Pyramids. Although Mack knew about all these things, and a lot more, increasingly they seemed to belong to some other place, some other planet. He tramped for long periods without seeing a tilled field, a freight wagon, telegraph poles, or even a single wandering sheep. He felt that he was approaching the remote border of the civilized world. Once he passed that, and conquered the mountain barriers, he would be in a land beyond all imagining—just as the old Spanish novel said.
There was less daylight every day, and it had a sad, cool cast. He tramped among aspens and alders and sycamores instead of the scraggly cottonwoods of the plains. The beautiful sunlit trees bent in the wind, which stripped them and flung clouds of bonfire-colored leaves around him.
The falling leaves made him sad, reminding him that he had no home.
Except the one that lay ahead.
He stood silently in a roadway that rose at an angle of thirty degrees and shivered. The snow was falling and blowing hard now, already covering the ground. It brought visions of his nightmare. He ran his icy hand through the long beard that reached halfway down his chest, his eyes fixed on the menacing obstacle before him. The Rockies. Black granite and gray ice. Common sense told him to turn back. He listened to other voices.
Never be poor again.
Never be cold again
He stepped out on the snowy, flinty road bordered with boulders and fallen slabs of granite and cried aloud when his weight came down on his left foot, swollen because his mule-ear boots were so tight, the left one especially. He'd cut it open with his clasp knife; now it resembled the ruined shoes he'd thrown away. He'd also ripped up one of the shirts from the roll on his back, and wrapped his foot. The shirting had been clean yesterday. Today it glistened and oozed blood.
He scorned himself for the outcry. Although there wasn't anyone to hear, he thought it unmanly, an admission of weakness.
The wind raked and numbed his face, and fear swirled up as the snow stung his cheeks. He set his mouth and dove his hand into his pocket to clasp the leather cover of T. Fowler Haines, his thumb finding the bold embossed C in California. Leaving bloody footprints in the snow, he climbed up the steep road toward the peaks.CHAPTER 2
WHITE LIGHT WOKE HIM. He sat up, grumbling, bone cold.
Hearing voices, he remembered where he was: miles east of Donner Summit and Truckee, in the Sierras, but still on the Nevada side of the border. A late-spring storm had driven him to shelter at sunset inside one of the high-mountain snow sheds built all along the Central Pacific's right-of-way. He'd fallen asleep. Lucky he hadn't slept all night; he might have frozen to death.
Creeping toward the light at the end of the shed, he resembled an upright bear more than a man, a shaggy thing bundled inside several shirts, a filthy buffalo-hide coat, and a fur hat he'd tied tightly under his beard. He wore three pairs of soiled socks, and work shoes he'd bought after cooking for a week for a CP section crew plowing the line in Nevada. He thrust his gauntleted hands under his arms and peered out. Light snow fell through the brilliant headlight of the locomotive hissing and squirting steam fifty yards down the track. Mack saw a coal tender, a single freight car, and a caboose. The night was vast, cold, forbidding, with a sense of implacable rock all around, and lifeless space.
A lantern swung to and fro between the train and the utility shed of a small coaling station. It belonged to the brakeman, who'd run up from the caboose. The engineer and firemen crunched the snow as they hurried back to join him, their voices carrying clearly in the still night.
"Saw him when he peeked out, Seamus. Hold my lamp while I get my truncheon."
Mack clung in the shadow just inside the shed, squinting against the headlight. The freight car door rolled back noisily.
"All right, you. Get out of there. Out, I say. There're three of us, one of you."
That convinced the stowaway; a shadow shape in the steam jumped down. Landing off balance at the edge of the long snowy incline that sloped away from the track, he groped for the freight car to steady himself. The brakeman said, "No free rides on C. P. Huntington's line, mister." Mack blinked at the sound of the truncheon striking the stowaway's bare head.
The man groaned and swayed toward the slope. Laughing, the engineer kicked the man's rear and the brakeman clubbed him again. That pitched him over with a muffled cry. Down the slope he went, rolling, stirring up clouds of snow. Mack heard another strident yell from below, then silence.
The train crew exchanged comments he couldn't hear as they returned to their posts. The brakeman stopped to urinate in the snow, then climbed aboard and waved his lantern. As the locomotive drivers shunted back and forth, the engineer sounded the whistle, and its throaty wail reverberated through the mountain fastness. Now the train came chugging toward Mack, its headlight reflecting on the two steel concaves of the jutting snowplow. For a moment they flashed like mirrors.
As Mack grabbed the beam at the end of the shed and swung around to the outside, his shoe slipped and he nearly fell. Clinging to the outside of the shed, he twisted to look over his shoulder. A chasm. Just a black chasm. God
Chugging, rumbling, the work train entered the shed. Mack couldn't help coughing loudly in the thick steam and coal smoke, but the train's noise was so great, no one heard. His nose ran and his teeth chattered. The train passed.
He didn't fancy himself a Samaritan, but he couldn't abandon whoever had tumbled down the slope. Carefully he swung himself back around to the track and trotted forward, alone in darkness seven thousand feet above sea level. Some clouds, like gauze veils, parted and revealed the stars and a few last snowflakes settled. The night remained absolutely still. The starlight helped him find the spot where the stowaway had disturbed the snow in jumping from the train. From there, Mack started working his way down the slope. The snow was three to four feet deep and the footing beneath uncertain. He felt the snow soaking his trousers again; he'd spent most of the winter either soaked or drying out. At the bottom, among some boulders, he found more disturbed snow, but no human being. Eyeing the track the man's body had left and where it stopped, he knelt and began to dig with his fringed gauntlets.
He felt something firm in the drift, and sucked in breath. It was an arm, and it was limp. He dug faster.
Mack broke into the utility shed and found a lantern with oil in it. After lighting it, he moved shovels and picks to clear a section of wall, then dragged the man inside, propped him up, shut the door, and turned up the lamp to see him more clearly.
The traveler was about Mack's age, with a delicate, pale face reddened by the weather, and he was clearly emaciated. Yet there was a vigorous and flamboyant handsomeness about him, heightened by thick black eyebrows and shaggy, shiny hair. Light stubble indicated he had shaved not too long ago. He wore a ragged army overcoat, trousers with a large black check on a gray background, and calf-high laced boots.
He groaned and leaned his head back, bumping it on the wall.
"You ought to rest," Mack said. He picked up the man's left wrist. "Anything broken?"
The traveler's eyes flew open; they were blue, innocent and disarming as a child's. He felt Mack's hand on his wrist and, struggling to get upright, he swung a fist at Mack's head.
Mack rocked back on his heels, ducking the punch, then grabbed the man's right arm before he could deliver another. The man's eyes caught the beam of the lantern and changed from blue to an opal blaze, like a cat's reflecting light. For a moment he looked not quite human.
"Listen," Mack said quickly. "I'm not a railroad man. I'm a traveler like you."
"You're—?" Mack felt the tension leave the stranger's arm. He opened his fist and Mack let go.
"I dug you out of the snowdrift down there," Mack went on. He noticed some tiny ruby droplets hiding in the man's snow-dampened hair. "Looks like you've got a cut. Let me see."
Warily, the man bowed his head, while Mack parted his hair. The cut was about two inches long, not deep, but leaching blood and full of dirt.
"I'll wash it out." Mack fetched a handful of snow from outside. Far away, something wild bayed, an angry sound. A wildcat up this high? Or a trick of the wind?
Mack removed the roll of extra shirts from his back. He'd been reducing one shirt piece by piece for rags and bandages, and now he ripped off another section, wet it with snow, and washed the cut. "I don't have anything to clean it better."
"I do." The man fished under his army coat; he seemed surprisingly alert. Handing Mack a small brown bottle, he said, "Don't use too much."
Mack poured a few drops of the strong-smelling whiskey into the cut. The man clenched his teeth but made no sound. He had perfect white teeth to go with his perfect features. Mack had no hope of ever being so handsome.
He opened his bandanna to find a knuckle-sized hunk of goat cheese peppered with blue-green mold spots. "Eat this, you'll feel better."
"I don't want to take a man's last food." But he snatched the cheese and bit it in half, chewing hard.
Mack chuckled. The man shot him a fiery look. Mack waved. "Go on, finish it. I've been walking for five or six months—I haven't starved yet."
Presently the man finished the cheese and wiped his mouth. "Thanks for pulling me out. Suppose I should introduce myself. Wyatt J. Paul. J for Junius. I'm from Osage, Kansas. Nobody ever heard of it."
"Chance is my name. James Macklin Chance, but that's too long. I go by Mack."
They shook hands. The young man from Kansas had a powerful grip.
"Where you from, Chance?"
"Pennsylvania. Schuylkill County coal fields"
"Are you bound for California like I am?"
"Yes, San Francisco."
"I'm going down south." Wyatt Paul wiped his nose, showing his white glistening teeth again. "But it's all the same sunshine. Pure gold. I'd say we should get moving and find it—what do you think?"
"In the morning, when there's light. Get some sleep."
"You in the habit of telling other people what to do?" Wyatt Paul's face froze momentarily into ugliness again, then he recovered. "Sorry—I didn't mean that. I've ridden the cars all the way here, and those three are the first who managed to roust me. If l had them here I'd crack their heads."
"Sure, I feel the same way," Mack said, though he didn't. He reached for the lantern and blew it out. The innocent blue eyes simply vanished. It gave him an eerie feeling.
Somewhere the wild animal screamed again.
Snow fell in bleak gray twilight. It had been coming down a long time. Mack's teeth hadn't stopped chattering for hours. Bad as Pennsylvania, he thought.
They had been traveling together for two days, climbing, descending, following great horseshoe curves in the main track. Now Wyatt spied a wooden trackside marker, stumbled to it through the drifts, and brushed off the snow.
CALIFORNIA STATE LINE
Little bits of melting snow fell off his face as he tried to smile. "We ought to whoop it up," he said listlessly.
"Not yet. Keep going."
Wyatt was too spent and starved to show any resentment of the order. Mack trudged by him, back to the center of the track, and together they continued west through the storm.
Two figures broke through the rolling white mist, crunching the shallow mounds of snow, and disturbing half a dozen mountain bluebirds, which shot upward in alarm. The men resembled walking rag heaps, with only the gleam of eyes and the pale flash of bare hands to indicate otherwise.
Mack went faster than Wyatt down the slope. He'd never inhaled such a sweet aroma as that which breathed out from the forest of smooth- and rough-barked trees, giant knobcone pines and tamaracks, white firs and mountain hemlocks.
Excerpted from California Gold by John Jakes. Copyright © 1989 John Jakes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 25, 2001
In California Gold, John Jakes has once again created a very engrossing story wrapped in lots of interesting history about California. As usual, his plot moves along at a brisk pace and he introduces many interesting characters -- both fictional and real-life. The main character, James Macklin Chance, is one of Jakes' more memorable ones. I'm sure you'll enjoy how he comes to California as a young man, poor financially but rich in ambition, and his adventures in building one fortune on top of another. If you enjoy historical fiction, and especially if you're a John Jakes fan, do yourself a favor and get a copy of California Gold. You'll be richer for the reading experience.
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Posted August 1, 2013
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