Jeremiah stirred in his bunkhouse bed. The rough blankets smelled of campfire smoke from sleeping close on the trail; he had them pulled up under his chin. His mind swam in a dream of her, the sight of her nakedness as she stood up in the tub at the bathhouse, the steam rising from her copper skin as droplets of water caught the reflection of golden embers of light from the fire in the kettle stove. He laughed at the silliness, which woke him, and the image lingered. She was perfect.
As Jeremiah opened his eyes, the pungent smell of the bunkhouse caught in his nostrils. Keeping the blankets tucked up under your chin was good practice for keeping both the warmth and the smell contained. He usually took his accommodations at the Church, but the women folk needed the sanctuary on account of the cattle auction.
All of the men in the bunkhouse were heading out that day; there was no time for lallygagging. Some were returning to their teams camped at the edge of town, readying to drive heads of newly acquired stock home. Others were returning to homesteads with vital supplies and treats. The leaves on the trees had turned, with no green remaining; the morning air-dried your mouth, and you could wear your trail coat till noon. Each man was about his business with a quiet determination. Jeremiah strapped on his gun belt, pulled his overcoat on and grabbed his hat, “Fellas”, he grunted on his way out the door; there was only silence as he stepped into the dark. His horse, pack-mules and supplies were overnight at Butte Outfitters.
It was still dark when he was all set to go, and daylight was at least an hour away. He wanted to reach the ridgeline that led to the trail before noon. That way, at least the path would be dryer from the sunlight reaching through the tall stone pines. The noise of the cicadas was less aggravating at this time of the year, and the forest humidity bearable, and the smell of resin a reminder you were nearer your destination.
He would head out along the river, letting his beasts warm to their loads and get a rhythm to their day before climbing the first steep track through the foothills before the climb to Cedrick’s Pass opened, to high mountains on the left and the flowing valleys below.
Here the slow winding switchback descent would begin, his mare, Lilypad would do well, the mules even better, if they were stubborn, it’s because they were unsure, and if they were unsure, then it was not safe, they were steady under the burden of their loads, they would take it slowly at the pace of Lilypad, slow descent into the valley below, where the trees no longer encroached. The river widened from a stream, with fish over shallower reaches, and grasslands became meadows.
Jeremiah checked the packs were fast on the two mules one last time, straightened his collar and pulled himself up onto Lilypad. The birds had started to call, and the town began to wake from its slumber. Jeremiah tipped his hat in thanks to Mr Cartwright, the Butte Outfitters general manager, and without a word, pulled Lilypad away from the trough. It was time to ride.
It was 1851. Men had gone mad. Women madder still. It was a time of the Stagecoach and Railway Men and the whisper of something called the Telegraph, a better life, a promised future. Jeremiah had always felt a longing. Even when he was little, he always had, and although he could read and write, his education was incomplete. He held a letter from his father that he kept in the inside breast pocket of that trail work overcoat.
It read as follows:
“Every human being will find that his happiness very greatly depends upon the work he does and the doing of it well. Whoever wastes his life in idleness, either because he need not work to live or because he will not live to work, will be a wretched creature, and at the close of a listless existence, will regret the loss of precious gifts and the neglect of great opportunities. Our daily toil, however humble it may be, is our daily duty, and by doing it well, we make it a part of our daily worship”. He had signed it, your father, B.Y. *
The tall stone pines that covered the steep side of the valley were larger than Jeremiah remembered. It had been a year since he had last come this way, and the giant stone pines held court over everything beneath them. It was hot and slow going, and Jeremiah rocked gently in his saddle, turning his shoulders and neck to look back at the mules, who were slogging behind dutifully.
It did not take much, the promise of some grain and beer, and the animals would follow you to places that few men would go without the guarantee of much more.
Jeremiah was heading for a place where dreams were spooled from sand and stone in the shallow waterways, revealed to those that toiled—labouring in the oppressive heat of summer and waiting out the winter in a canvas tent with a makeshift kettle stove for heat. Mountain men, turned feverish by shiny rocks, men who had traded their snares and pelts and the solitude of their winter haul. Places now only whispered of, with the chance to labour for your fortune and your dreams if you would only take the journey. This was such a place, further still than had been spoken of, and still further than many men were willing to go, and one more valley away from the one that Jeremiah had ever travelled, but he knew this backcountry well.
It took him all day and into the twilight to get to the valley floor where he camped for the night. The mules each got a beer and some grain, and Lilypad as well. He had taken his time to get the fire going so he could put some green heather bush onto the flames to create a thick smoke that would deal nicely with the swarming insects. That night he slept with the tent open on both ends. He didn’t want the morning dew making his blankets wet. Still, he wanted the cool night air to fill his lungs while he snored gently to the sounds of the night, open as it was in the wild valley. Lilypad would alert him to any danger.
It would take him another three days to traverse into Deadman’s Hollow, where he would find men that had bought into a life of solitude. Secluded from the changing world, a little piece of heaven laid out before you. There was no way of entering that valley from any other place, and the moment you broke cover from the Spruce fir that lined the lower slopes before the grassland, you were no longer invisible. There were no strangers here, well, not for long, but not everyone was welcome.
The men had their claims registered along with the parcel of land that stretched from the steep mountainside, all the way down to the water, that was the entire claim and the papers proving their claim were registered and filed with the local Sheriff and notarised with the surveyor from the state capital.
There was no hurry here. Men claimed their land, up against the side of the valley, long plots that met at the river, they dug trenches, and they toiled, wiping their brow with the back of a hand that was rough from hard work and riding long in the sun. They drank, hunted and sang, but mostly they spooled for gold. Jeremiah Willard Young had come for their souls.