Prelude to the novel, The Gold Hunter

“The lightning bolt is buried in these mountains. If you find it you gonna buy a castle? Get a dozen wives like a Mormon? Maybe you buy the moon?” He meant gold–the lightning bolt was Papa’s word for gold. Papa didn’t believe in gold. He believed in trees. Trees were his gold.

John Valory stood atop a Ponderosa pine log two feet in diameter, a king of trees compared to the princely pines back east. He was pulling hard on the upstroke of ten feet of ripsaw steel until his muscles bulged–and then coasting while his son pulled the sharp blade back down. The log lay horizontally split over a pit. His son was down in the hole pulling hard on the down stroke which covered him with golden sawdust. His son imagined the dust as showers of precious gold, the blood of kings and pharaohs. The son of John Valory dreamed great valleys of gold. He had dreamed of gold all the way from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to California. He imagined what his father had not imagined. He had a secret he didn’t tell anyone. He believed he would find gold.

Today he would find gold. Today he would become the hunter not of deer or birds, but of precious metal. He would find his treasure right after they finished eating birthday cake. Today the dream of gold would come true.

June 12, 1852. It was his birthday today. It was the magic of seventeen. Petr John Valory (his Russian mother skipped the second ‘e’ in Petr to save ink) would get a few simple presents on this beautiful bright blue California Sunday. Then he would go gold hunting. What his father didn’t imagine was that he didn’t want to get presents, he wanted to give them.

Rumors of California gold ran wild. An ordinary man could make a fortune in a day. Rivers of solid gold lay hidden in mountain valleys and could be found and harvested with a pickaxe and a shovel. Indians could be relied on to trade frying pan sized chunks of gold for a pretty scarf or a few dozen beads. These stories were for fools, he knew that. But a young man like himself could find a reasonable amount of gold in California, enough for his dream of giving.

He stopped the ripsaw. He answered his father, “I’d build Mama a white house with blue shutters and I’d buy her a piano. I’d buy Annabel a good horse so she can ride around and stop pestering me.”

John stopped. “Yea?–and nothing for dear old me?”

“After I build you a water-powered saw mill,” he looked at the withered skin and tired face of the old Dane for a moment. “After that I’d bring a steam engine from San Francisco. Then you could pull levers and mind gauges all day while steam makes piles of lumber.”

John Valory laughed a good hearty laugh. “How soon can you find this goldmine?”

Papa had quit drinking on the way west but he was worn out. Pennsylvania had worn him thin from cutting boards for other men, for pennies. The old man wanted a lumber mill. Was that asking too much? California was for starting over. It could happen. Petr Valory could make it happen.

In the valley north was a big mining camp called Gold Nation where a big man named Dain King was hauling buckets of gold out of the river. He was buying every stick of lumber the Valory men could whip from the pit. He was getting gold and he was hungry for more. He was building a long wooden trough, a flume, to carry the river out of its bed so men could harvest its golden bottom. Dain King was dreaming big. Petr had seen him from a distance, a great bull of a man, a bronze dome for a head.

Papa kept Petr away from him. Papa wouldn’t let Petr go near him; he didn’t explain why. People had soft spots in their heads that weren’t rational. Petr had his own soft spots. His dream of finding gold maybe was one of them. But he definitely had an odd soft spot, too. He had fainting spells when he was a kid that sent him into a dream world. He had strange dreams that were more like memories than dreams.

He dreamed he had lived long ago in a far lost land of sands and pyramids and pharaohs. He was a flying prince–he became an invisible falcon soaring across great yellow deserts finding big veins of gold beneath the sand. He was a Gold Falcon. He kept that to himself because it was best not to talk about soft spots.

The doctor called his fainting spells seizures, but he called them ‘jim-jams’: the picture in his head flipped and that’s when he fell into one of his strange dreams. He simply was gone for a while. Being ‘away’ was more interesting than real life. In Egypt he had a dream name: Mahrire. And a pharaoh named Horemheb always sent him on a mission to find gold; and Mahrire fell in love with a beautiful dream girl named Mirael. It was better than life. He couldn’t talk about it.

Papa jabbed the long-saw into him. “Where’s your lucky creek?”

“Past the far end of the Valoryvale, past Big Jack’s cabin, past that ridge beyond his lake–to the west–I have a good feeling about that far west valley. I dreamed about it.”

Every gold hunter had a feeling about a far west valley. Men searched for it. Papa knew about the lost valley with its lake of gold. Everybody knew the story. Papa said it was a lie.

Late in 1849 a man named Tom Stoddard had found a lake filled with gold. Indians chased him away. (But what would Indians care about gold?) Spring of 1850 five hundred men went with Stoddard but they couldn’t find the lake again. Dain King was one of the ‘Gold Lake men’. Was Gold Lake still out there in some hidden valley?

Half a dozen small lakes lay hidden in that high west valley. Was one of them Gold Lake? He reckoned he would find it if it was out there.

Papa laughed. “You find it this afternoon, and we don’t have to do this anymore.”

There was a piercing steam whistle scream: “Eeee-eee! Yoo-hoo!” It was Annabel Rochele; the little Fifty-pounder, little Rocky, little Puzzle-puss, little Bee-bee, little Monkey-bump, dashing up to the pit.

“Come home now. It’s lunchtime now–then it’s you-know-what time!”

The sun rode at high noon. After his birthday party he knew she would follow him into the high valley. What to do with a lovesick puppy? That’s why he had to find some gold today (a reasonable amount like a hat-full). Then get Annabel a horse. Then a nice house for Mama. Then a saw mill for Papa. Then things would work out.

Father-son-daughter, walked hand-in-hand, three hundred yards back to the Valory log cabin. What happened late that afternoon in the high west valley changed things forever.

Gold Lake was a dream that turned into a nightmare.      (Available from Amazon)

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