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08. June 2016 · Comments Off on From The Golden Road · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

From the current work in progress (well, one of them anyway) — the adventures of Fredi Steinmetz in Gold-rush Era California. I have been making great advances on this picaresque adventure, The Golden Road,  which in the time-line of the Adelsverein Trilogy slots in neatly between Book One and Book Two. Magda’s scapegrace younger brother Fredi went to California in the mid-1850s, which was mentioned several times in the Trilogy, and in Sunset and Steel Rails, by which time he was late in middle age and the romantic interest for Sophia Brewer Teague. But this is the story of his younger days in California… it should be out by the end of this year.

Chapter 15 – The Express Mail

Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

Wakened just before dawn by a distant rooster crowing in protest in the next street over from the saloon, Fredi crawled out from between his blankets. Pale light seeped through the gaps between the boards that made the lean-to shed appended to the back of the Craycraft Saloon. He pulled on his outer garments, noting with some surprise that Edwin and his bedroll were nowhere to be seen. From the foot of O’Malley’s bedroll, Nipper looked out from beneath O’Malley’s worn coachmen’s overcoat with bright eyes, but declined to rouse himself. The dog abominated cold, as well as damp – and Fredi sympathized wholeheartedly with Nipper, especially on this chill morning.
Still – Fredi did wonder what had happened with Edwin. O’Malley gave every indication of being deep in slumber, and Fredi was loath to wake him and demand an explanation. Was it to do with the quarrel between the two on the night before? And where was Edwin? O’Malley would be playing the piano in the saloon tonight – as well as for Lotta’s second performance. It was his understanding that the Faery Star would perform twice more at the Craycraft Saloon, so he would have the opportunity to see a performance at least one more time, after his journey with the mail and back.
The previous evening, he had importuned the Chinese cook – by gesture and very simple English – to put two potatoes to bake for him on the stove, when he banked the fires for the night; now the potatoes were done and hot. Fredi slipped them into the pockets of his coat, where they radiated warmth, somewhat enthusiastically. He helped himself to coffee, from the pot already sat at the back of the stove; the coffee was also hot, and there was molasses to sweeten it, but no milk. The Chinaman came in from the outside, with an armload of wood for the stove. Fredi nodded to him, from courtesy. He didn’t quite know what to make of the man, with his almond-shaped eyes, and long black queue snaking down his back; he didn’t speak much English – or German. China was called the Celestial Kingdom, and was along away across the Pacific Ocean, and if Fredi had known much beyond that, he had forgotten it long since.
O’Malley was still gently snoring in his bedroll; Fredi pulled on his coat, wrapping a heavy muffler around his neck and mouth, and tiptoed more or less silently out of the back door of the saloon, still wondering where Edwin was, and what the dispute between the two had been.
It was light outside now; a faint pearly light sifting through the overcast. Frost crunched under his feet – either a heavy frost from last night, or a light snow-fall. The river was not yet frozen, although a substantial layer of ice rimmed the banks, those rocks in mid-stream and those places where the water lay still. The water itself was black, cold-looking, and shriveled between its banks. Fredi walked along to the express office, down a muddy street which even at the crack of dawn was full of lively activities; a few stores were already open, and the gambling hells really never closed.
The express office was no exception, either; Mr. Layton, who managed the office was a stickler for opening early. In the early days in Downieville, it cost a dollar a letter. Profits were still good enough, however – and the mail service was even faster. In the early days, before California was annexed and gold discovered, Fredi had been told it took six months or a year, for a letter to travel from the east.
“Morning, Dutch,” Mitch Layton said, as Fredi came in. “Hope you dressed warm, today – it’s gonna be cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey, and even worse tomorrow, if my bunions aren’t lying.”
“Two sets of flannel longjohns,” Fredi replied, cheerfully. “And hot potatoes in my pockets.”
“You’ll need ‘em today, Dutch. You gotta full pair of saddlebags, and likely the same waiting for you in Camptonville. Oh – and keep your eyes wide open. There’s been a couple of road agents reported laying for the stage, last couple of weeks.”
“Good thing I’m only carrying letters, then,” Fredi patted the reassuring weight of the long-barreled Colt dragoon revolver, hanging from the belt under his coat. “Nothing worth getting shot over.”
“You never know,” Mitch Layton answered. “There are some damn-stupid sons of whores out there.” He handed Fredi the packed pair of saddle-bags, bulging with mail, bound for Camptonville, San Francisco and the east. “Don’t take any risks with ‘em, if you do run into one. Especially with my horses.”
“Safe as if in a baby’s cradle,” Fredi replied jauntily, and slung the saddlebags over his shoulder. The horse was already bridled and saddled, tied to a hitching rail out in front, stamping impatiently and blowing out steamy breaths into the frigid air. Fredi flung the saddle-bags over, and mounted up, feeling as free as a bird soaring into the air. Mr. Layton’s express horses were a very fine collection of horseflesh, Fredi thought to himself once more; fine-blooded, high-spirited stock rather than the small and nimble mustang cowponies of no particular breed that he had been accustomed to riding back in Texas and with Gil Fabreaux’s outfit. Today’s mount was a tall brown gelding with a slightly darker mane and tail; Mitch Layton said that this horse was named Brownie. Even at a trot, Brownie had a comfortable gait, and his canter was a smooth as silk. There were some stretches when Fredi must rein him in, for Brownie loved to run when he was fresh – but it was a hard twenty miles and a little more to Camptonville, over a twisting, rutted road which had been established more by use and custom than any deliberate program of road-building.
No – Fredi was done with gold-seeking, not if it meant standing knee-deep in ice-cold river water for most of a day, or grubbing a dark tunnel into a hillside, like a mole. It was only after giving up that notion of a fortune in gold to be had for a small labor that Fredi could see to the heart of the matter. Did this insight mean that he was closer to being a man – an admirable man, like Carl, or O’Malley, or Gil? Riding for the express mail suited him better, although the work of it was no less arduous, and certainly no warmer.
“I’m just not cut out to be a miner, Brownie,” Fredi confessed to his mount, and Brownie’s ears twitched, as if he was listening and sympathetic, even if Fredi was speaking German to him – that language of his childhood, although he had spent so much time of late speaking English that now he thought he had begun dreaming in English, too. “I can’t stick staying in a single place. Maybe I will, some day. But this … always a fresh prospect over the horizon … something new and exciting. Vati used to say that you had to know yourself. Perhaps this is what he meant by that.”
The sun was just peeping over the eastern horizon as he left the flats behind; a thin golden thread illuminating the mountaintops, but the valley of the Yuba Forks was still masked in blue shadow. Walk, trot, canter – at a steady pace, intended to make all possible speed while conserving the strength of his mount.
Walk, trot, canter, matching pace to the condition of the road and the pitch of the slope in it; Brownie’s steady, obedient hoof beats ate up the miles, as the sun rose higher and higher at their backs, the mild midday warmth melting the frost on the trees, and at the edges of puddles.
“It’s one of those things, Brownie,” Fredi continued, in a confiding mode when they reached a slightly up-hill stretch of road. “Loyalty to a pard, like you and I. One for all, all for one. O’Malley and me – we’re partners, too. And Edwin, too – even if I wonder what he has gotten up to? O’Malley sounded angry last night … What we do, we ought to do it together – a man needs good friends out here, and no mistake. There’s men who wound up being shipped off on a ship to Shanghai, or dead in a ditch, if they didn’t have friends looking out for them. O’Malley, now – if there was a man who needs a keeper. And Edwin – he’s a babe in the woods, like that old story – for all that he says he isn’t. If it weren’t for them, I’d take my share of the gold from Pine Tree and go home to Texas. And that’s the truth of it.”
Brownie’s ears twitched again, as if he understood perfectly. Walk, trot, canter, yet again. Pause to water him from the river, pause again for Fredi to dismount and stretch the kinks out of his legs and back, and eat his near-to-cold potatoes. Let Brownie graze briefly on a patch of winter-killed grass, and feed him a handful of oats, before resuming the journey. He saw only a handful of other travelers, all that way, for winter was closing in.

He reached Camptonville – brawling, sprawling, wood smoke-shrouded Camptonville very late in the afternoon, Brownie, being a well-conditioned horse and accustomed to the regular long journey, still had sufficient energy to prance, as Fredi threaded through the outskirts to the express office, and the stables behind. John Harvey, the express agent at Camptonville, came out to take charge of the saddlebags. He was a very thin young man, a little older than Fredi, afflicted with a persistent racking cough that hinted at consumption. He had wrecked his health through laboring in the placer mines for three seasons.
“No problems?” he asked, as Fredi un-cinched his saddle girth. Brownie seemed to shiver with delight, and blew out his nostrils in a great sigh of relief.
“Not a whisper,” Fredi shook his head. “Mitch said he had heard about a road agent setting up along the road, but I expect that he must be laying for the stage. I didn’t see anyone the whole way who didn’t look like he had a good reason for being there.”
“It’s too cold a day for any but an honest man,” John replied, and coughed. “Well, when you get done with rubbing down Brownie, we’ll go over to the Nevada House for supper. My treat, Dutch.”
“Bring a full poke,” Fredi replied, “I’m hungry enough to eat a whole beeve.”
John Harvey laughed, shaking his head, and left Fredi to finish tending Brownie. The stable was unexpectedly warm; the bodies of the other four express horses and the milk cow stalled therein likely had a lot to do with it. Fredi filled the manger of the empty stall with dried hay, and a handful of oats, rubbed Brownie’s long nose with affection, and went into the express office. John Harvey lived there, in one of two little rooms behind the office; two lengths of dark red calico stretched from wall to wall and floor to ceiling formed the separating walls, Fredi would spend the night in the other, sleeping on a straw pallet, and head back to Downieville the next morning, with the mail dispatched from Yuba City which had arrived the day before. Fredi liked to think of that company of express riders, moving up and down the tracks between San Francisco and the remotest of the gold camps; the saddle-bags of letters, moving by relay riders on twisting mountain tracks, and by steamboats ploughing up and down the rivers. Perhaps he would be tired of this job soon enough, but at the moment – especially this moment, with his day-long journey over – he was supremely contented with it.

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