This story, the first in a projected series of four novels collectively called The Goldfinder, is a well-crafted excursion into the world of magical realism. A surreal dreamscape that moves back and forth through time, identities and presumptions, the book is set in mid-19th century American West where everyone is infected, one way or another, with the4 often-fatal disease of gold fever.
Here’s how it’s supposed to go for popular Action fiction.
He’s a good-looking young stranger rides into town on a long-legged buckskin wearing tied-down guns and a flat-brimmed black hat. He’s good with a gun, in fact lightning fast, but he’d rather not find trouble. In fact, he’d like to settle down, maybe start a small ranch and maybe find a good woman who can handle a Winchester rifle as well as make good strong coffee. But trouble finds him real fast and right away he’s up against a whole bunch of bad guys who also have amongst them a really bad guy who’s also lightning fast. There’s gonna be a showdown. This is classic Louis L’Amour plotline (Kilkenny). If you study Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, you see a not much different character, just super-sized and amped-up to the level of violence characteristic of modern Action/Adventure.
If I could keep my stories this straight and simple my writing work would be so much easier.
My character, Petr Valory (The Gold Hunter) is morally complex. He’s not afraid of anything, but he will avoid violence if possible because of moral radar that warns him if he’s too close to an action with karmic consequences. Because of flashes of insight gained inside the shining heart of the secret Gold Lake, he knows he has lived before and will live again. He knows if he harms anyone or kills someone there will be dire consequences in this life or in the next. Kilkenny and Jack Reacher do not have these moral restraints. What a pleasure it must be to write without restraint, to just blast bad guys!
Of course, there are two characters in my story who act without restraint: the Indian, Sabbah, who kills to revenge the murder of his son; and Dain King who believes he is a Viking returned to wreak havoc on the Indians and anyone else who gets in the way of his carving the gold-rich mountains of California into his warrior nation, called Gold Nation. I have painted Dain King purposefully horrible and murderous and without conscience for reasons not to be revealed until the last book of the four-book series called The Goldfinder.
Truth is, I don’t enjoy writing horribly immoral characters, the bad guys. I prefer good guys.
My good guys, the moral and restrained-by-love characters, are 17-year-old Petr Valory and his 8-year-old sister Annabel. They portray Love dealing against the dark doings of evil: Sabbah and Dain King. How does goodness survive against evil—without committing evil? That is the question I am hardwired to write about—and find very challenging to answer. Even if I try to not write about it, I still end up writing about it. How I sometimes wish I could write like Louis or Lee.
But I can’t. I must write like good old morally-complexed me. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. Jack London tried it once in a novel called The Star Rover where his character is imprisoned in a straight-jacket, discovers he can escape into a past-life and leave the misery of the jacket behind. Very possibly few people will really understand what I am trying to get to: solid, moral meaning in a world rife with confusions of good and evil. My work has been called magical realism (BlueInk Review). I take that as an intended compliment. But for me, writing is metaphysically infused reality not commonly understood in the black and white tabloid-reality of the world. I am compelled to write this hard way, Action with metaphysical undertones and overtones. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. It’s a moral compulsion. It’s what I do. Also I love every minute of it. When I publish a book, I publish with great regret that I will no longer be spending time with my characters taking on the bad guys in very spiritually thoughtful ways. Michael Carradine’s ‘Cain’ in the old TV drama ‘Kung Fu’ comes to mind. But let that be for another time.
I heard the hush of an icy Sierra Nevada mountain creek rushing down from one of the high places; I smelled the powder sugar breath of Ponderosa pine. Something magical happened. Instantly I was transported back to the greatest of all times in history, the California Gold Rush. I was born in 1949, a hundred years too late. But I felt like I was one of them, the gold seekers, the gold hunters. I could see them so clearly.
Hungry, desperate men coming by land and sea from all around the world: German, Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese—all these and many more—coming from all around the globe. Never before or since was there such a rush of men, all believing in the power of gold: You get rich just by moving a few shovelfuls of dirt! History has proven again and again: Men hungry and wild with gold fever are the most driven men on earth. I can see them now.
When I walk through silver valleys sliced by flashing streams, in my imagination, I see their camps, I see the men. Wood smoke rises from a dozen shanty cabins; the men say very little as they strain and grunt and swear, knocking rocks together as they move them across boulder-filled streams so they can get deeper into the rushing river. Gold treasure is buried somewhere under these cold streams in underwater vaults and these men will not stop until they get rich, or die.
You haven’t seen men like these before. They are not particularly big men. Their muscles are hard as the rocks they move. Mostly they are thin and hungry-looking because they haven’t had enough to eat in months. They are very hungry all the time. Day’s spent in the river hunting gold leaves little time for hunting food. But one good gold strike will solve all their troubles. That’s what they believe.
Of course, they were deluded. Those who survive will work as laborers in lumber camps, farming, or simply go back home, broke, but filled with stories of their greatest adventure. Hopefully they discovered their own families were their greatest wealth and happiness. That’s how I write it.
I write about these men because I can still see them and hear them, and I must do my writer’s best to portray them and give them a voice. It was the greatest time to be alive—the California Gold Rush.
While in New York City, I recorded a video about the creation of The Gold Hunter. Please view the video and tell me what you think.
I started writing stories at a pretty early age, 9 years old. My first story was about a caveman named Uk and his wife Og seeing their first total eclipse of the sun. I remember both of them were terrified, but Uk somehow becomes a hero to his wife. I think he told her not to worry, the sun would return from the mouth of the beast. The last words of the story were from Og: “Oh, Uk!” Not exactly a brilliant display of early talent. I was in the fifth grade, my teacher put in the comments on my report card that “Philip gazes out the window a lot.” That was probably pretty accurate, but not a bad thing in my humble opinion. Then I won the eighth grade spelling contest against the smartest girl in the class—and I was off to the races. From there, I bought a little locked-key diary so it forced me to make an entry on a daily basis and it seemed important to me not to leave a day blank. It still seems important not to have blank days.
That was long ago and what I have really learned is that you don’t know what you’ll write until you sit down and write. Which is another way of saying: You don’t know what’s inside you until you write it, until you face the holy of holies: The Blank Page.
I certainly didn’t know I would write a novel about a 17-year-old boy who would find the greatest source of gold in the California Gold Rush. I didn’t know I would write about the falling of giant trees, the great Redwoods and what it took to bring a big one down. Or that I would be researching the Paiute Indians of Pyramid Lake. Or that I would revisit three horrific battles of the Civil War: Stones River; Chickamauga; Missionary Ridge. I never would have known if I hadn’t sat down to write.
I believe all of these things were inside of me like seeds that just needed to grow under the sunlight of a writer’s attention and love. Yes, I do love what I write about. Stephen King calls it the workings of “the boys in the boiler room” Yes, the subconscious mind.
People say, “What should I write about?” For the sake of discussion, let’s just say your heart is an amazingly powerful magnet (I believe it is) and is magnetically drawn and turns just like a compass towards what it loves. When you start feeling drawn to something, someplace, or event, and most particularly, a certain time and place, there you will find what you will write about. There is your goldmine, your jackpot, your motherlode. You’ll be drawn to it just like magic, just like a magnet. There you will find your joy. Follow your bliss. Don’t ever bother with the Million Dollar Lotto. That’s bogus. Your heart’s joy is not there. But that’s for another discussion.
By the way, I didn’t know I was going to write any of this until I sat down to write. Goodbye for now.
Sabbah thought, Stay my friend, sah, sah, sah. I will do a beautiful thing for you. My heart is true, and I will hurt you only a little. From the elkskin he drew his bow and quiver. My friend, better you to come with us, enter our bellies, become one of the People–than wander off into the mountains where you will be killed by wolves, eaten by skunks, and become one of them. I will make you Numah!
He pictured a beautiful robe for Nojomud, moccasins for his little feet, sinews becoming strings for a fine bow, antler tools to chip arrow points. He pushed the strung end of the bow into the ground just below his crotch, and pulled the other end slowly into himself compressing his arm. The greasewood eased towards him and he slipped the string onto its notched end. Good and tight, the wildcat’s gut making the singing voice of my bow. From the wildcat quiver he drew a single rosewood shaft. Careful not to touch the point, he gripped the feathered end and drew the silent bow into a smile. He whispered, “Hear me now: You will be Numah, you will be strong, you will not be sorry.”
Wing-like ears rotated towards him. The buck snorted and bolted away.
Gone like smoke in a breeze! Sabbah sat blinking. Nojomud lay sound asleep. He reached over and combed the boy’s hair, his black forelocks rough as a pony’s tail. The boy turned but did not awaken. Sabbah would have much time later to think about this last touch.
He ran to the horses calling to the spotted one that made Sabbah more than a man. “Talldog, hssst.” It came instantly and he released its hobbles and instantly they followed the clicking music of the running deer.
Long moments later they chased following the deer down the Long Green Valley through mist and wet grass but could not close ground. The scent and clicking grew fainter. No choice but to follow: God has taken the shape of a white buck deer! Then show the sleepyheads in camp the biggest deer they’d ever seen. Nojomud would whoop, seeing the war bonnet of antlers, and of course, gazing at his father with pride. The picture was spoiled by an unsettling thought: Sabbah has only one arrow! His quiver of arrows lay inside his elk robe, now over a mile away.
Talldog was a good horse. They caught an occasional glimpse of a ghost flickering through the mist. It was dangerous to run at night. Talldog might step into a hole; spirit creatures roamed. Yet darkness couldn’t last because already the great light of Apu had begun its first kindling and would soon flame upon the horizon.
Hunting time is dream time. He could not tell how long he followed the deer. He guessed if he yelled aloud, no one in camp would hear him, guessing he was three times beyond his yelling voice being heard. A bad thought came: My big friend you are leading me astray. But then he saw it again. Exploding from the grass it splashed into the river, crossed, and disappeared again. Sabbah forgot to breathe. What was that thing? God come to life on the ground? Where was it?
Moments later it re-erupted on the opposite bank and shook itself off. Above the buck, tall dark cliffs rose to the dusky sky where stars twinkled and faded. Sabbah hobbled Talldog, whispering, “There may yet be work for you.” He stalked towards the river but before he reached the edge of the water he saw movement along the cliff. Did it fly up there?
The white buck looked as if it was standing on the sky. Lifting its head, its pink tongue flickering like flame, as if to say, Now you see why I am so big? Sabbah would never forget this moment. The deer climbing so fast as if lifted by wings, fading stars behind him, how could Sabbah know this was the last sweet moment of his life?
He called softly, “My friend, you are too beautiful to kill. Perhaps the Good Spirit wishes for you another son.” He smiled, wondering if he too might someday have another son.
The he heard the sound that ended all good dreams forever.
The sound did not repeat itself and Sabbah relaxed, stretching lazily, inhaling the good strong smell of his elkskin robe, heavy with dew, warm and good like a woman’s scent. He smiled. Dawn would bring a new day to show his son Nojomud the joys of the hunt. The boy was a small version of his father, homely, dark-skinned as smoke. The whites called Sabbah ‘Smoke Sam’ because he was dusky, bowlegged, thin-chested and dog-faced. Sabbah works harder to run, to hunt, to get a wife! Ten years ago Sabbah found a Mahdoo woman who married him, and gave him a son. Nojomud was different only in one way: he was always smiling. Father and son were unlike their athletic kinsmen, the Numah, who the whites called Paiutes.
Today Sabbah would show his son that he could do something big: bring the power of rifles to their tribe. Coming down the long valley his little band had seen two new cabins full of whitemen. Those bad people chopped down trees like crazy beavers. You could not share the hunting ground with them. They needed to be rubbed out. Where was the man Munson who promised guns? No matter. This bend in the river before the high cliffs was the meeting place. Sabbah would trade with the white savages and when the time was right–use the rifles on them.
He remembered seeing the owl-faces for the first time. Nine summers ago when Chief Truckee was still alive. The owl-faces came staggering across the dust, men half-dead from ignorance of how to live in the desert. The People fed them and guided them West through the mountains. When the owl-faces left with round bellies they thanked the People and gave nothing in return. Sabbah remembered what he said at that time: So this is our pale brother we waited so long to see!
Next came the gold-crazy dogs–men who were digging up the mountains for their yellow god-in-the-ground. More came every day now, beggars who traveled in rolling huts bumping along with their empty-faced women inside. Ugly beings! Pouring into the Silver Mountains like streams of hungry ants. His wife’s people, the Mahdoos, would be stuck with these thankless creatures. Sabbah knew what to do. Get guns. Kill the invaders. That was why he was here.
He heard the snuffling sound again. He sat up slowly as moonrise. Ten paces away stood the biggest buck deer he had ever seen. Stone still. Beautiful white face with tree-like antlers; powerful white body rising like mist from the dark grass. Black eyes staring at him.
Two miles below the Valoryvale twelve men were bedded down on a ridge above the Feather River and they were supposed to doze right off and get up at 5 A.M. and kill Indians.
Curl Watne tipped his flask taking a fiery nip of whiskey and King would have shot him if he saw that. No drinking before a fight, he insisted.
Watne wished to hell he was back in Iowa. Wished he was hitching the team to a plow, getting fields ready for corn. Instead he was on a rocky ridge overlooking a river, waiting to kill, all for a sack of gold. King promised a thousand dollars for a year’s work.
God damn the gold. Get it. Get back to your wife.
He hadn’t signed up for killing–just tending mules and helping build the big flume; nothing about killing Indians for their horses. There was a lot he wouldn’t be able to tell Martha.
Sabbah slept dreaming he was awake and seeing everything from a cloud. The thin-lipped moon kissed the crest of the big silver mountain beyond their camp. Not a puff of wind disturbed this peaceful night. The stars made countless tiny campfires overhead. The small band of Indians slept in Long Green Valley beneath the mountains by the whispering river, six Pah Utes lying in a circle of grass, his cousins, and his son. Thirty ponies stood a short distance off, their legs hobbled with rawhide, unaware they were being watched. Together they had traveled over the big desert to the big cold river at the base of the silver mountains. The People journeyed here each summer to hunt deer. Sabbah was dreaming of the good hunt that brought them here and the fat deer they would bring home to wives waiting by the pale blue lake three long days away in the east. And he was dreaming of rifles that shout six times. The white man said he would trade thirty rifles for thirty horses.
Something inhaled sharply and his dream spirit quickened. That part of him knew–Something is watching you! Awaken, don’t move! Let the illusion of sleep continue.
Above the river the falcon slept on her eggs until a stone rattled down the cliff sounding just like a snake. Small pebbles hit her chest startling her into a short, wobbly flight and what she saw next was worse than an invasion of snakes.
The horse gods were riding along the high rim of the canyon, making a shower of stones.
When she returned to her eggs they were all smashed. She circled the nest screaming wildly. She clenched cold gravel in her talons and let it go. She could not bring her eggs back to life. Now she would never show the young flyers the joy on the wind.
She jumped skyward and when she did she remembered her lost mate. Her sickness returned as if the smashed eggs were inside her stomach.
Halfway home Annabel fully recovered, trotting behind him like a talking puppy. The sun-painted mountains grew cherry red. His vision was now razor sharp, all colors rich and dark, all pines emerald spears, all mountains hammered walls of molten iron.
“God in heaven,” he spoke warily. “My eyes are light-drinking wells.” He was roaring with wildcat energy. The world sparkled in kaleidoscopic rainbows of green, yellow and red, the sky a rich vault of cobalt blue. Never had he felt such vitality. Yet he felt anxious as if he was too late for something. He slowed down to let Annabel catch up. She was puffing.
“What did you say? Ain’t you gonna tell me what happened down there?”
Petr shrugged. “It was like a dream. I only remember snatches.”
“Tell me snatches then.”
“I dove underwater and found a tunnel. I swam until I reached a chamber filled with stale air. It was filled with gold light coming from below. That didn’t seem possible. So I went down another tunnel for a look. I found a room full of bright light. It was hot. That’s all I remember. That’s probably where I found the gold moon. But I don’t remember. I passed out for a while. I dreamed I was in a land of pyramids and pharaohs and I was looking for gold.”
She said, “Was there a beautiful girl?”
He didn’t answer. That was enough for now. They could hear the whispery welcome of Valoryvale waterfall that fell twenty feet to the valley floor. Just one more step and–
Then he heard something very bad. “Wuh-wuh-wuh,” like a big dog. He knew what it was.
A rolling mound of flesh was heading towards them and he reached back and gripped Annabel’s head. “Stay put like a rock.” She crouched behind him. She looked more like a noodle than a rock. Jack had been right to scare them with stories. Kids alone in the woods without a weapon had no–
He remembered the Indian knife and pulled it out.
The grizzly sniffed the air, gazing at them. His head was big as a bushel-basket, his body a dark sack of hunger. When it reared up Annabel screamed. Six feet of raging hunger stood on its hind legs. A greasy patch of blood smeared one shoulder–a wounded grizzly–very bad news. He remembered the gunshots earlier today. The bear made a low rumbling grumble. Then it charged.
Petr screamed: “AWAY! AWAY from my sister!” Amazing thunder in his voice, the warrior screaming in his head: Attack!
Suddenly he ran at the bear, the knife cocked at his hip, ready to strike, ready to meet the bear, and it kept coming. A little girl-scream sounded a thousand miles away. And then the bear filled his eyes.
It halted abruptly–and swung a hooked paw. Petr ducked and amber eyes blazed hatred at him. It bellowed and Petr smelled rotten fruit and death. Its gaping blue yap filled with yellow teeth. Petr struck the knife into the huge mouth.
With all his might he drove into the slimy hole, down the slimy throat, plunging until his arm was engulfed in a meat grinder. The bear gagged humid breaths and vomited purple geysers spraying Petr’s should and neck. He was clamped up to his shoulder in an iron jaw. Below his embedded fist a powerful savage heart pounded like a buried drum–
Nothing existed in the world but him and the heart of the bear.
The bear toppled sideways and Petr felt his shoulder pop. The grizz made a curious whining cry, turning its mouth gingerly aside. Its legs coiled like springs and Petr knew his stomach was about to be churned out like spaghetti from a bowl.
Thick claws raked him but clicked against metal as something round pounded his gut. And for some reason he knew what to do next. He forced the knife into a grisly circling stroke. Hot greasy fluids boiled over his hand and the big beating heart popped like a balloon. The grizzly stiffened. Blood poured from its mouth.
From somewhere a keening wail had been going on forever. “Eeeeeeeiiiiiii!” A little girl pulling on him, screaming and kicking and beating.
Blood rivered over him in big red gushes–but the girl was there to help free him. She didn’t stop screaming as she pulled his arm from the gushing throat and his arm floated out like a newborn baby. Red teeth-marks sliced from his bicep to his wrist. He did not want to believe that arm was part of him–or his hand–a dead-looking blob that no longer held a knife. Well, it was a good place to leave the knife. He crawled away.
Collapsing on his back, wiping sticky goo from his face, he was coated in purple puke. No girl should see such a sight. Poor Annabel, where was she? Was she all right?
He didn’t have strength to stand so he twisted around. Annabel was standing over the dead bear with her fists clenched and her voice even higher than usual. “Bad old bear! Why did you do that? Bad old bear!”
He gasped, “Annabel…it’s…not much…farther. Get help…get Papa.”
She crouched beside him, hands on knees, staring at him, her dress a bloody rag, her voice awestruck. “That was amazing. Where did you learn that–that was real Injun fighting. You jumped, you swung, you rolled, you–”
“Rocky! Get Papa and don’t tell Mama.”
She nodded and ran away. She was a girl, but she was reliable. He had one last thought: That was one hell of a birthday. Then everything went black.
(After the slaving author has taken a short Christmas Holiday)
Her eyes widened and her mouth fell. “You found…Gold Lake?”
He nodded wearily. “That’s part of our deal. You keep the watch. You keep your lip buttoned about all of this.” He waved his hand around. “Agreed?”
Annabel nodded. She wanted to agree. She asked suddenly, “I gotta know: How could you stay underwater an hour? How did you do that?”
He shook his head. “There’s a cave that goes under, a long ways under. There’s lots of gold. For some reason I can’t remember what happened. It’s blanked out–actually–blazed out. It’s called The Luminah. Don’t ask me what that means. I can’t remember. Don’t tell anyone.”
She was thinking: Looks like Petr, sounds like Petr, acts like Petr–but what about the glasses? “Don’ cha want your specks?” she asked innocently.
He picked them from the sand, blew on them, and pocketed them. “I don’t seem to…to need them anymore. Pretty funny, huh?”
Yeah, that was real funny, a great answer. Proof Number One. She sought more of the same damaging proof. “Where ‘ja get the funny old knife? It looks like black glass.”
He sat like Papa after a long hard day. “It’s none of your beeswax business, little Bee-bee. You already know way too much.” He rubbed his arms as if he were real flesh and blood.
She thought: That’s right, I do know too much–as much as you–if you really were Petr. The haunt didn’t look like a creature from Jack’s tales, just a tired, wet man. Could it be Petr? She reviewed her strange dream. Water Pony took her into a hole in the lake, a cave into the mountain. Was it a real place? The real Petr…could he have…just possibly-maybe might have…if it were real…swum into? Could he have breathed–inside what he calls The Luminah? Could he….
Keeping low, she approached him as if he was a hot furnace, slowly, carefully–while he was absorbed tying his boots. Would a haunt even know how to tie laces? She stared into his big whiskey eyes. He had a new sparkle in his right eye. She inched closer. He stared without needing to blink. There was a sparkling speck and it was a real humdinger.
A tiny gold star. Right there in his right eye. Wow.
This was new. The old Petr Valory had no such speck. Not to mention it. Not on your life. It might set him off. But she grew crazy bold. She touched his cheek. He was on fire! Did dead men have hot skin? She withdrew quickly. She said in a small wary voice, “Why’s there no second ‘e’ in your first name? Why’s it spelt funny?”
He tied his boots. “Because Mama said it would save ten dollars worth of ink, over my lifetime, not having to write another ‘e’. It’s her idea of economy.”
And that was true. But there was a bigger, more important burning question in the world. She blurted, “Who’s your favorite sister? What’s your nicked-name for her?”
He laughed, turning to her tenderly, “Oh Annabel. Oh Little Fifty-pounder. Our Little Puzzle-puss. We have dozens of names for you.” He tousled her hair–and she let him.
“But you’re my little Rocky. You’re my favorite sis. The one I love the best.”
Annabel threw her arms around his neck, gasping, “Oh! Petr, I thought you was dead! Oh Petr, oh God, oh Petr! I thought…I thought…” Tears spilled down her face.
Petr swung her around in a circle until her feet flew outward, until she giggled, until she said, “Oh, is it really you?”
“Rocky, don’t you worry. I’m more alive than you’ll ever guess. And don’t ever doubt I love you the best.” She clung to him looking up at him. He shook his head. “You’re due a good spoon-beating from Mama for ruining your dress, but first things first.”
He glanced left and right. “Let’s get down this mountain before grizzly’s suppertime.” Petr turned modestly away tucking the gold moon under his shirt, halfway down into his pants, cinching his belt. He grimaced and smiled. “Finding gold is hard, painful work. But the Valorys are rich now. You’ll wear a silk dress and be riding a fine big horse very soon.”
He hoisted Annabel onto his shoulders. “Okay, whirly-girl: You keep the pocket watch and we keep our big secret. Now let’s get home.”
The watch chinged six o’clock in Annabel’s pocket. She said, “I found a good path from home. Can we take it? I’m a good pathfinder.”
Petr laughed. “You are–unfortunately. Point the way, Rocky Pathfinder.”
She gripped his ears and prodded him with her toes for speed. “Giddy-up, horsy! Then he carried her down the mountain towards the Valoryvale.
But their day was not done yet.