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Wagons West COLORADO!
By Dana Fuller Ross
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 1981 Book Creations, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTracy Foster stood at the bar of one of Sacramento's run-down saloons drinking a whiskey, his gray eyes staring off into space. Although he could have gone to an establishment in a more respectable part of town, he chose this saloon because he felt a kinship with the lonely, dispossessed men here, waiting for their luck to change for the better.
Years earlier people had come to Sacramento from all over the world to make their fortunes in the California gold rush. Once the stopping-off place for tens of thousands of gold seekers, Sacramento was now the state capital of California and a bustling, prosperous city where fortunes were being made in grain, fruit, and vegetables, not in gold.
But not everyone in Sacramento met with success. Some of the prospectors who had come out years ago to the California gold country still remained, occasionally panning for gold but more often spending what little money they had on cheap whiskey in seedy saloons. They lived in flophouses, and they went hungry, dreaming of the time when their luck would change. Tracy Foster knew, of course, that most of these down-and-outers surrounding him in the saloon would consider him a lucky man. He lived with his brother and sister in a comfortable ranch house in the Valley; he was always assured of a good, home-cooked meal; and his brother and sister were deeply concerned over his well-being. But to Tracy Foster's way of thinking, there was nothing to be thankful for.
Scott and Sarah Rose, his brother and sister, meant nothing to him. Oh, their intentions were good enough, but ever since their mother had died years ago, Tracy felt as if he had no family. What was more, Scott and Sarah Rose were more strict and demanding than parents. They expected him to work on the farm they had inherited, and he either had to toil in the orchard all day or else go into town for supplies. Well, he had done today's errands, and now he was having a drink, whether Scott and Sarah Rose liked it or not.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the corner of the bar. A young, unshaven miner wearing ragged clothes had taken the last of the hard-boiled eggs the saloon served its customers. A somewhat older miner, equally as bedraggled, said the egg belonged to him. Neither man had eaten all day, and each began shouting at the other. Then, the egg forgotten, they began to fight, tumbling onto the floor as they grappled with each other. In the melee, the egg fell to the floor, and a mangy dog that had been waiting for handouts snatched the food in its mouth before anyone could do anything. The miners stopped fighting when they saw this, and they sat up and looked on forlornly as the dog swallowed the egg in one gulp.
At that moment a man burst through the doors of the saloon. He, too, looked as if he hadn't had a good meal in a long time, and his clothes were ragged, but instead of scowling, his face was bright and excited.
"Have you heard the news?" the man exclaimed. "It's in all the papers! Gold has been discovered—a lot of it—in Colorado country!"
Suddenly everyone in the room—including the two miners who had fought over the egg—began talking excitedly. Tracy Foster put down his glass and listened. Men who hadn't eaten in days, who could barely raise themselves off their mattresses on the flophouse floor, were now jumping around the room as if they had just been let out of school. Gold! The magic word. It didn't matter that the gold strikes were in Colorado country, hundreds of miles away over some of the roughest terrain in the United States. They would go to Colorado, and maybe this time their fortunes would change.
Tracy listened intently to the excited talk about going to the new gold country, and he made up his mind. He had only been a boy during the California rush and had never seriously thought about searching for gold himself, but maybe this was what he should be doing. Just watching the unbounded enthusiasm of these miners made him think that here was something to go after, something to live for.
Tracy went over to a group of men who were making plans to set out the next day for Colorado. They didn't seem to notice him as they talked about the supplies they would need—and were willing to beg, borrow, or steal—for their trek. Suddenly Tracy broke into their conversation.
"I've got some money of my own. I'll pay you if you take me with you," he said, his gray eyes focusing on the other men.
"How much you got?" one of the men asked, now interested in the newcomer.
"A little over five dollars." Tracy showed the man some bills and loose change, a portion of which he had taken from the money his sister kept in the cookie jar at home.
"You got yourself a deal," the man said, taking the money from Tracy. "We're leavin' from here first thing tomorrow morning, at dawn. But you're gonna need yourself a horse and food and supplies of your own."
"I'll have them," Tracy said, shaking the man's hand. "And I'll be here at dawn waiting for you."
Left without funds of his own, Tracy knew he was going to have a hard time raising his own grubstake from his stingy brother and sister. Still, he wasn't going to let anything stop him from going to find gold in Colorado.
"Down at the bank just now, I heard that a prospector from Georgia—name of William Green Russell—has found gold in the highlands of the Colorado country, east of the Rockies." Chet Harris, in his mid-thirties and somewhat overweight, fingered the gold nugget that he wore on the gold watch chain spanning his waistcoat. Then, grinning at his partner, he dropped into a chair in their lavish office suite in San Francisco.
"I picked up the same story myself, and the newspapers are already screaming the news," said Wong Ke, slender and bespectacled, more than a decade older than his partner. The Chinese man, who by now had assimilated many of the ways of his adopted country and spoke a nearly perfect English, regarded Chet with his customary seriousness, but he felt the same surge of excitement. It was 1858, eight years since they had made their own fortune in the California gold fields, and in that time they had built a great financial empire. The Wong-Harris firm owned banks, real estate, newspapers, and hotels throughout the growing state of California. It was no wonder that the pair were regarded as the West's most eligible bachelors, even though they had become expert at eluding husband-seekers.
Chet pulled himself to his feet, went to the table of polished mahogany that stood near the windows overlooking San Francisco Bay, and picked up the battered tin sifting pan in which they had first found gold. He held it up to the light, then turned it over slowly. "I wonder if you're thinking what I'm thinking," he said.
"No, Chet!" Ke was emphatic. "Even if we retired today, we couldn't spend our money in our lifetimes, so I'm not going to rush off to Colorado to look for more gold."
Chet's grin broadened, but there was no humor in his eyes. "We both enjoy challenges, Ke," he said. "Our business enterprises here are thriving, and I'm feeling restless. I'm eating too much and putting on weight. You sit around so much doing paperwork that your bones are beginning to creak. Nobody knows more about gold than we do. I think we owe ourselves another taste of adventure."
Wong Ke sighed. "Last year's financial panic has put men out of work all over America," he said. "Fortune hunters from every part of the country will be going to the Colorado country by the tens of thousands. It will be the California gold rush all over again."
"Not for us. We can take security guards with us or hire them after we get there. This time we'll never go hungry, and we can afford the best accommodations—"
"If any are available." Wong Ke shook his head, then smiled faintly. "Unfortunately, I'm as lacking in common sense as you are."
"That's more like it!" Chet returned to his seat, then spoke briskly. "The way I see it, we'll use a different strategy this time. We were lucky in the California rush, but lightning isn't likely to strike again without careful planning. The surface gold is discovered very quickly, but the real pay dirt is found in the ore that needs to be smelted—which is beyond the capacity of the individual gold hunter—"
"Aha!" Ke brightened. "We establish land claims, as many as possible. We buy out individual claims when necessary."
"Exactly. The surface gold is no more than pin money to us now. We set up real mines, each with its smelter, and we'll have no trouble hiring men whose prospecting has failed." Chet hooked his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets. "How does that strike you?"
"Fine." Ke's attitude hardened, too. "The season is too far advanced for you and me to leave for Colorado now, Chet. I have no interest, at my age, in trying to cross the Rocky Mountains with winter coming. What is more, we still have a great number of business matters to settle in California before we leave. We'll send a couple of reliable advance agents ahead, with instructions to buy as much land as they can in the vicinity of the initial strike. Then, perhaps in a year's time, we will be able to set out for Colorado."
"We think alike, as always," Chet said. "By next year we'll have a much better idea where gold is to be found in sufficiently great quantities to make it worth mining. If we can handle this situation as it should be handled, we can double our fortune."
"I don't know why we're doing this—except to prove to ourselves that it can be done," Ke said. Then he laughed aloud and added, "But that's a good enough reason."
Straight rows of fruit trees stood in the Foster orchards in the Sacramento Valley, a testament to the hard work of young Scott Foster and a fitting memorial to the vision of his late father. Even a husky man in his early twenties had physical limitations, and having worked in the fields since dawn, Scott was happy to return to the ranch house at sundown.
He stopped at the well behind the house, pumped a bucketful of water for washing and another for drinking, then carried them through the back door into the kitchen, where oil lamps were already burning and delicious scents came from pots and pans on top of the woodstove.
Sarah Rose Foster, who was stirring the contents of a pan, smiled at her brother. Dark-haired, with blue eyes, she had developed into a beauty since childhood, her figure supple and slender. Her manner was reserved, quiet, and when she did speak her voice was calm and confident. Ever since the tragic murder of her mother by a pair of outlaws during the lawless era of the California gold rush, she had become the homemaker of the little family, somehow finding the time to complete her own education, then becoming a teacher at the local Valley school.
Scott peered over her shoulder. "Mmm. Your special soup. Also, beefsteak, potatoes, and fried onions."
"With some of our own preserved peaches for dessert," Sarah Rose told him.
He poured water into the scrub-up sink, then vigorously washed his hands and face. "You ought to cook simpler meals when you've spent most of the day teaching."
Her long, shining hair seemed to dance when she shook her head. "You work harder than I do, and you deserve a good supper. Besides, this really is a simple meal. You know I throw all kinds of leftovers into the soup stockpot."
"True enough, but there was no need for you to bake bread. I can smell it."
"I felt like baking," she said, her tone indicating that she would tolerate no argument. "Now just sit down, please."
He drew up a straight-backed chair and seated himself at the kitchen table. "Where's Tracy?" he asked, referring to the brother two years his junior and a year older than Sarah Rose.
She looked at him in surprise. "I assumed he was working in the orchard with you after he got back from Sacramento today."
"He never did come back from his errands." Scott tried without success to conceal his concern.
The young woman made no reply, but she was worried, too. Tracy had become withdrawn after the death of their mother, whose murderers had been gunned down by former Valley sheriff Rick Miller, but Tracy had continued to be erratically unpredictable and had shown no improvement through the years.
"I wonder how much money he had in his pocket," Scott said.
Sarah Rose went to the old, cracked cookie jar that rested on a corner of the mantel, emptied the contents onto the kitchen table, then counted the money. "It appears he took only a dollar and a quarter."
"Damnation!" Scott was annoyed. "That money belongs to all of us, and he has no right to help himself. For a dollar and a quarter he can buy enough whiskey to stay drunk for a month!"
She automatically came to Tracy's defense. "Since we don't know that he's drinking, I see no point in getting angry now."
Scott tried to calm himself. "You're right, I reckon. All the same, I feel like beating the tar out of him."
She glanced at him for an instant as she returned to the stove. "You've done that often enough, but it hasn't stopped his drinking or made him less lazy. You know what Rick and Melissa Miller say," she added, referring to their neighbors, who now operated a sprawling, prosperous ranch. "There's nothing we can do to help Tracy or keep him out of trouble. Either he'll grow up one of these days, or he'll be in trouble for more years to come. And I prefer to be an optimist."
Her brother scowled. "Maybe Rick isn't as frank with you as he is with me. After his years in the Texas Rangers, before he took over as sheriff here, he knows a bad penny when he sees one, and he's told me straight out that he's afraid Tracy is moving in that direction."
"We've fretted over him for years, and it hasn't done us the least good. All I know for certain is that I'm not going to wait for him and let supper spoil." She began to ladle soup into two bowls.
They were almost finished with their first course when the kitchen door opened and Tracy came in. He bore scant resemblance to Scott or Sarah Rose. Taller than his brother and huskier, Tracy had a swarthy complexion and a reddish glint in his hair. His gray eyes, his most arresting feature, were brooding.
Sarah Rose could smell whiskey on his breath but knew that he was not intoxicated.
Scott gave his brother no opportunity to speak. "This is a private house, not a public inn that serves meals at all hours," he said angrily. "You know what time we eat supper."
"I've been busy," Tracy replied airily as he ladled soup into a bowl. "Very busy."
Scott continued to glare at him across the table, but Sarah Rose was intent on keeping the peace. "You sound very mysterious, Tracy," she said.
The younger brother smiled wryly. "Some people spend all their lives with their trees, so they have no idea what's going on in the world."
"Some people earn a living for those who are too lazy to work!" Scott retorted.
Ignoring the rebuke, Tracy calmly began to eat.
"In fact," Scott said, "some people don't even have the common courtesy to wash up before they sit at the table."
"I'll tolerate no fights in this house," Sarah Rose said firmly, "and both of you well know it!"
Not wanting to upset his sister, Scott became silent and concentrated self-consciously on eating his soup.
Tracy's gray eyes were glowing. "The news is all over town," he said. "Everybody in Sacramento is talking about the gold strike in the Colorado country."
Scott was indifferent. "One gold rush was enough to last the rest of my days," he said.
"Me, too." Sarah Rose stood at the stove, keeping watch on the cooking beef. "I was still small when the fever hit the Sacramento Valley, but I'll never forget those desperate, hungry men who straggled down the road day after day."
"You never saw those who found gold," Tracy told her. "They went off to San Francisco with their riches." Something in his voice caused his brother and sister to look at him. "I've made up my mind," he went on. "I'm heading for the Colorado gold fields."
Scott stared harder at him. "You've got to be crazy. Every out-of-work loafer in America will be going to the Colorado country, and so will adventurers from all over the world. There will be chaos just like we knew here nine years ago."
Excerpted from Wagons West COLORADO! by Dana Fuller Ross Copyright © 1981 by Book Creations, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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