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THE Golden Stairs
By Al Lacy JoAnna Lacy
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2006 ALJO PRODUCTIONS, INC.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was Friday, February 11, 1898. At the California State Prison just outside San Quentin on San Francisco Bay, twenty-nine-year-old Jess Colgan stood at the barred window of his cell, staring across the prison yard, beyond the oppressive walls toward the city.
It was a typical winter's day. Fog hung low over the city and the bay, and rain fell steadily from the gloomy sky.
San Quentin was shrouded in a gray cloak, hiding her face from the world.
Jess Colgan popped his right fist into his left palm and said in a low whisper, "Only three more weeks, then I'm off to the gold fields to make my fortune. Nothing is going to stand in my way. Nothing!"
Jess heard footsteps in the corridor, and a key rattled in his cell door. He turned around to see two guards with a prisoner dressed in prison stripes. The guard who had unlocked the door motioned for the young man in the striped clothing to enter. As he obeyed, the guard looked at Jess and said, "New cellmate for you, Colgan. His name's Fred Matthis."
The door clicked shut, the guard turned the key in the lock, and both guards walked away.
Matthis extended his right hand. "Glad to meet you, Colgan. What's your first name?"
"Jess," replied Colgan, shaking his new cellmate's hand.
Matthis lookedat the two bunks in the cell. "Which one's yours?"
"The lower one."
"Okay. I'll take the upper. Mind if we sit down on yours and get acquainted?"
Jess smiled. "Not at all."
As they sat side by side, Matthis said, "I'm in for twenty-five years for manslaughter. How about you?"
"I've been here for almost seven years ... for robbing a bank in San Jose."
Matthis raised an eyebrow. "Tracked you down and caught you, eh?"
Jess shook his head. "No. I was wearing a mask when I entered the bank, and was about to get away with a moneybag containing thirty thousand dollars when the county sheriff and a deputy just happened to be coming into the bank as I was dashing for the front door. They whipped out their guns and forced me to surrender. The judge sentenced me to seven years." Jess let a smile curve his lips. "I'll be getting out next month ... Thursday, March 3."
Matthis's brow furrowed. "Why'd you take such a chance robbing a bank? Were you not employed?"
"Not gainfully. My father owns a chicken farm across the bay just outside of Oakland. We never had much money in my growing-up years, and I had to wear the tattered, hand-me-down clothes of my older brother." Jess's features twisted in anger. "I hated the way people looked at me. I swore that when I grew up, I'd make a lot of money and be rich. I'd never been able to get a really good-paying job since graduating from high school. All I knew about was feeding chickens and cleaning out chicken houses. So I decided to rob the San Jose Bank. I would wear a mask and get my hands on some real money." He sighed. "That thirty thousand dollars would've been wonderful. But now, I'm penniless."
"So what are you gonna do when you get out of prison?" Matthis said.
Before Jess could answer, a guard stepped up to the barred door and said, "Colgan, you've got visitors. Your parents."
Jess rose from the bunk and looked at Matthis. "My dad and mom take a ferry across the bay twice a month to visit me."
As the guard unlocked the cell door, Matthis said, "You've got good parents, Jess. My parents already told me they'd never come see me here at the prison."
Jess stepped into the corridor and looked back through the bars. "I'm sorry about that, Fred."
The guard led Jess down the long corridor to the visiting room, and he sat down at a barred window with his parents facing him. When Jess looked at them, he thought they looked far older than they actually were. His mother's hair was now more silver than light brown, and most of his father's hair was already gone.
Maybelle Colgan's old dress was clean, but the pattern was faded beyond recognition. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, which seemed to accentuate the deep worry lines etched in her brow and at the corners of her eyes.
Lawrence Colgan's overalls had seen better days, but they were clean, and the plaid shirt he wore was pressed. Both parents' eyes showed excitement as they looked at Jess.
"Oh, honey, only three more weeks and you'll be free!" Maybelle said.
"Yeah, son, only three more weeks," Lawrence said. "Then I'm going to try to help you find a job."
"I'm sure your dad will be able to do it," Maybelle said. "He knows lots of business people."
Jess let his eyes settle on his father's face. With a softness in his voice, he said, "Dad, I appreciate your wanting to help me find a job, but ... "
"But what, son?"
"Well, I've got other plans."
"What do you mean, other plans?"
"Well, I've been reading in the San Francisco Chronicle about the gold strike in Canada's Yukon Territory, and how thousands of gold seekers are going there from all over to make their fortunes. My plan is to go up there and make my fortune in gold."
Maybelle blinked. "I thought the prison officials wouldn't let the prisoners have newspapers."
"They won't provide newspapers, Mom, but they allow us to have them if some visitor brings a paper to us."
"An ex-con that I got to know in here comes to see me once a week. His name's Bernie Brodak. He always brings me the latest editions of the Chronicle. Bernie's been out almost two years and has a good-paying job working at the docks for an uncle who owns a ship-building company. After I'd read about the Yukon gold strike in the papers, I told Bernie of my desire to go up there. When I get out next month, Bernie's going to give me the money I need to get there."
Lawrence rubbed his jaw. "Son, it'll take a real chunk of money to do what you're talking about doing. You'll have to have sufficient food and plenty of warm clothing and miner's equipment, let alone the cost of a ticket to sail there from here. Is Bernie aware of the cost?"
"He is, Dad. He and I have discussed it, and Bernie's going to give me twice as much money as the highest estimate."
"Why is Bernie so willing to do this for you?" Maybelle said. "I know you're good friends, but we're talking about a lot of money here."
Jess smiled. "Mom, I saved Bernie's life a few years back when a convict who had it in for him tried to kill him in the prison yard. I was close by and went to Bernie's rescue. I had to pound the man into unconsciousness to keep him off Bernie."
Lawrence and Maybelle looked at each other in amazement. Lawrence said, "Jess, we didn't know about this. But I'm sure proud of you for rescuing your friend."
"No wonder Bernie wants to help you fulfill your desire to get to the Yukon," Maybelle said.
Lawrence frowned. "Son, did that convict become a threat to you afterward?"
"No. He tried to escape from the prison a few days later and was shot to death in the attempt."
"Oh, I see. Have any of the inmates ever tried to hurt you?"
"No inmate ever has, Dad, but a little over a year ago, I had a run-in with a guard when I was in a chain gang, working outside the prison walls. His name was Howard Ziegler, and because he was supposed to be tough, he expected the convicts to be afraid of him.
"One day Ziegler ordered me to lift a huge rock and carry it several yards to a different spot. He knew that no one man could ever lift that rock, much less carry it somewhere else. I told him I'd need help. His temper flared. He demanded that I pick up the rock and move it to where he had indicated. When I told him I couldn't do it alone, he told two other guards to grab me and strip off my shirt. Then he told them to put me facedown on the ground and hold me there. He then beat me with a whip."
Maybelle gasped and shuddered.
"Son, why didn't you tell us about this?" Lawrence said.
"I didn't want to worry you and Mom, especially since I had more time to be in here."
Maybelle thumbed a tear from her eye. "Son, do you have scars on your back from the beating?"
Jess unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt, turned his back toward his parents, and pulled the shirt collar down a few inches. When his parents saw the scars, they both gasped.
"The scars go all the way to my waist," Jess said, looking at them over his shoulder.
Lawrence's features were gray. "Did you get any medical care?"
"Ziegler took me to the prison doctor, but the incident never got to the warden's ears. The prison doctor was afraid to report it to anyone, especially the warden. He knew if he did, Ziegler would do something drastic to him."
"Well, he should've reported it to the warden anyway!" Lawrence said. "And the warden should do something about that no-good Howard Ziegler!"
Jess shrugged. "They're gone now, Dad. The prison has a new doctor and a new warden, and Ziegler and the two guards who held me down are gone. Not long after my beating, Ziegler and the two guards beat another prisoner and got caught in the act by the warden himself. He fired them on the spot."
"Well, I'm glad for that," Lawrence said.
Jess drew a shaky breath. "If I ever see Howard Ziegler again, I'll kill him!"
"Jess, don't talk like that!" Maybelle said.
"Your mother's right, son," Lawrence said. "If you killed Ziegler, you'd hang for it. You've got to get him out of your mind."
Jess bit his lower lip and drew another shaky breath. "I'll put my mind on my future, Dad. I'm really going to enjoy prospecting for gold. And when I strike it rich, I'll give you and Mom lots of money so you can retire comfortably."
"Your mother and I appreciate your desire to do that for us, son, but we really don't want you going way up there in the cold northland. Just let me try to help you get a good job right here."
Jess shook his head. "My mind's made up, Dad. I'm going to Canada to get rich. When I'm released from prison on March 3, I'll come home and stay with you until I can get reservations on a ship from San Francisco Bay to Alaska."
"Jess, you have a right to make your own decision about what to do with your life," Maybelle said. "Your dad and I will be glad to have you back home for whatever time you'll be here."
"We really don't want you going so far from us, but your mother's right." Lawrence drew a deep breath. "We'll be back to see you as usual in these next few weeks, and on March 3, we'll be here to take you home."
Jess let a smile curve his lips. "Thanks, Dad."
Lawrence smiled back and rose to his feet. "Well, Maybelle, we'd best be going."
Maybelle looked at her son through the bars. "I love you, Jess."
"I love you, too, Mom. See you next time."
The Colgans watched their son as he walked to the door of the visiting room. A guard was at the door to the corridor and opened it, and his parents kept their eyes on him until he passed from their view.
Lawrence and Maybelle stepped out of the prison building into the falling rain and headed toward their wagon. Lawrence noticed that Maybelle was wiping tears with a handkerchief. As they drew up to the wagon, he placed an arm around her shoulder and drew her close to him. He held her tightly for a moment, then helped her onto the seat.
Maybelle was still dabbing at her eyes when he settled on the seat beside her. "I wish things were different, dear," he said softly as he put the horses into motion, "but we'll just have to let our boy do what he thinks best."
Maybelle reached down and pulled up a blanket from the floor and placed it over their laps. She then gazed forward at the fog-enshrouded road.
Lawrence took hold of Maybelle's hand. "I know you're disappointed with Jess's decision to go to Canada, honey, and I am, too. But we both know there's nothing we can do about it. It's his right, as you said. He has to make his own way in life, along with his own mistakes and choices. He knows we love him, and that there's always a place for him here in our home."
Maybelle nodded and sniffled. "Yes, honey, but he knows nothing about gold mining. He's never been out of this country. He has no idea what he might face up there. There's no telling what hardships and obstacles he may have ahead of him." She took a deep breath. "But life goes on, and though I'll worry about Jess, I'll do my best to handle it."
"I know you will, sweetheart. And as for us, we still have each other, a roof over our heads, and a warm fire waiting at home. I wish I could give you a nicer house, but for now our little place will have to do."
"It'll be fine. We have so much to be thankful for, dear."
Just then, there was a break in the fog, and a small ray of sunshine poked its way through.
Lawrence looked up at it and a smile creased his face. He squeezed Maybelle's hand. "See that sunlight up there?"
She looked up, and a smile touched her lips. "Mm-hmm. Beautiful, isn't it?"
"Sure is. And you're right. We do have a lot to be thankful for."
Excerpted from THE Golden Stairs by Al Lacy JoAnna Lacy Copyright © 2006 by ALJO PRODUCTIONS, INC.. Excerpted by permission.
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