The Just and the Unjust




Jenny Guttridge


…so that you may be sons of your Father which is in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.   Matthew 5:45.



A cool wind laden with moisture blew strongly down from the mountains; it lifted the strands of the bay horse’s mane and sighed in the tops of the trees. Adam Cartwright huddled further into his coat and turned up his collar. All afternoon the clouds had been boiling up over the hills: grey at first, darkening to purple and blue. Riding far to the south and the west, deep in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Adam had several hours yet to spend in the saddle before he reached the familiar home ranges. The comforts of hearth, a bath and his father’s fine table were still a long way ahead. Despite his best efforts, he wasn’t going to get there by nightfall – it was time to look for some place to shelter. As if to underline that final thought, the first, fine mist of rain spattered into his face.


There was no obvious place; he was many miles from the site of any human habitation. Here and there were sparse stands of trees: sycamore and evergreen live oak and an occasional grey digger pine. Wiry grass clothed the hillside – short, tough and a very bright green. To the untutored and inexperienced eye the landscape had all the appearance of abandoned and unkempt parkland. Adam knew better. The land was unforgiving and cruel. The soil was thin over bedrock. Rainfall was sparse, but when it did rain it rained in a torrential downpour that would drench a man through and was apt to sweep him away. Thunder rumbled on the flanks of the distant mountain, and it began to rain harder. Adam had an ugly suspicion that he was about to get very wet.


He said as much to the horse. He gave the gelding a solid pat on the neck and leaned well forward in the saddle to speak into the tasselled ear; “The nearest place I know with a roof on it is a mile the other side of the river, fella. I reckon it’s been raining up in those hills for an hour or two. I think we’d better move along and see if we can get to the crossing before the flood waters arrive.”


The horse shook his bridle by way of response. He didn’t much like the rain either. Laughing, Adam gathered his reins and turned the big bay around. The wind was behind him and helped him along as he touched his heels to the horse’s flanks and set off down the hill at a ground-covering canter.


There was no chance at all of outrunning the storm. As the man and his horse fled before it, the rain became heavier; it swept over the land in wind driven sheets, and as Adam expected, it soaked them both through. Thunder rolled and crashed in the plum-coloured clouds, and the sky grew ever darker as the afternoon turned into evening and then into night. As soon as the shrouded sun slid away behind the mountains, the temperature started to fall. Adam knew he was running well behind time. He should have started out earlier. The floodwaters swelling the river would be racing ahead of him, cutting him off from the spare comforts of the cabin he vaguely recalled: a fire of sticks and stockpiled lumber, a dry, if threadbare and dusty blanket and something warmed through to put in his belly. Caught on the wrong side of the river, he was likely to be delayed several days in getting home.


Adam wasn’t pleased about that. He had both personal and professional reasons for getting home to the Ponderosa on time. The business empire founded by his father more than twenty years ago had spread a long way beyond the original boundaries of the ranch and encompassed many more interests than timber, cattle and silver. That very week they were expecting emissaries all the way from China and a delegation of business partners from a wide spread of cities to discuss an increase in the trade in silks and spices. Adam had wanted to be there to hear what was said for himself – and to put forward his own opinions. And next weekend there was to be a grand dance and social in Virginia City, and Adam had already booked himself a promising date. Anxious not to miss out on either, he kicked the horse harder.


The crossing point was several miles down the valley where the hills flattened out, and the grass thinned and became interspersed with patches of bare, barren soil and outcrops of fierce, jutting rocks. It was the place where the pasturelands ended and the desert began. The river ran on past that point, far out into the badlands where it dived into sinkholes and pits and was never seen again. By the time Adam got there it was totally dark. The sun had long set, and the light of the moon and the stars was totally excluded by the rain-heavy clouds, but Adam heard the rush of the water and knew that he was already too late.


The gelding was trembling. He was afraid of the storm, and his muscles were weary from his long, hard run. Adam soothed him again with a word in his ear and steadied him with firm hands and heels. He edged him nearer the river, just to be sure.


The wind picked up a flurry of rain and hurled it into Adam’s face. His skin still burned with the heat of exertion and the shock of the cold water made him catch at his breath; there was certainly ice in the mix. He was already soaked. The water sluiced off the brim of his hat onto his back; his coat and his pants were sodden, and his shirt clung to his body like a second, tightly fitted, black skin.


With mincing steps, the big, bay horse walked down to the water’s edge. In normal weather the river here ran broad and shallow with a fine gravel bottom that a wagon could safely cross. Tonight it was different; a torrent of water ran over the rocks. A flash of lightening revealed just how different it was. At the sight of the silver on the crests of the waves and the speed and the force of the water, Adam gave up all hopes of swimming the gelding across.


He swore softly under his breath, cursing himself and the horse and the heavens alike for making him late. The thunder roared loudly in sharp, celestial response. The horse balked at the water, even as Adam turned him away, and shied at the next flash of lightening. His iron shod hooves slipped on the wet rock, and he tumbled backwards into the river.


Adam felt himself falling and kicked his feet free of the stirrups. When he hit the water he was already out of the saddle. He thrashed arms and legs to get himself clear of the horse. He couldn’t get any wetter, but he could get a good deal colder. The water, fresh off the mountains was partly melt-water and bitterly cold. He hardly had time for a breath before the current tugged him under, and the water closed over his head.


The son of a sea-faring man, Adam could swim like a fish. The river wasn’t prepared to give him that option. The undertow had a very firm grip. It swept him on past the shallows, pushed and pulled him along. He scraped his hand savagely on something unseen and cracked his elbow on a submerged rock. Pain shot to his wrist and his shoulder. Adam would have yelled if he could. His chest was aching. Precious air leaked from his mouth and his nose. The current had spun him head around and turned him head over heels; he no longer had any idea which way was up. He began to think he might drown.


Reluctant to die without one more glimpse of the sky, he kicked out strongly. His head broke water just as the lightening flared. In that single flash he saw the river rushing towards him, speeding him along. He also glimpsed the liquid sheen on the bay horse’s rounded rump as the animal heaved himself out of the water and lunged up the bank. Adam’s thought, as the current dragged him under again, was that at least the gelding had gotten away.


This time he went down for longer, but that one glimpse of the above-water world had given him his bearings. He worked with the furious flow of the water to steer himself to the outer edge of the current. He took some hard knocks against the riverbed and grabbed for something – anything – that would stop his haphazard progress and give him some stability in the turbulent water. His lungs were burning with need, and the blood was singing loud in his ears – louder even than the race of the stream. With one frantic effort he pushed himself up and grabbed for some air.


In between the flashes of lightening, the night was totally dark; the rain still tumbled out of the sky, and the roar of the river was loud in his ears. Without knowing how, he sensed that he was closer against the bank than he imagined. To reinforce that impression, the swirling weight of the water smashed him into a solid mass of earth and stones. Adam grabbed for a handhold, only to have it come away in his hand; he snatched for another as the river tried hard to pull him away. This time the rock stayed fast in the bank, giving him precious seconds to gather his senses and clear his head.


His body had become very cold, and his fingers were numb. Adam made sure he found another strong handhold before he let go of the first. His water logged clothing: wool coat and pants and the tight leather riding boots dragged him down; he couldn’t get out of them and had to carry their weight. With no roots to bind it, the bank crumbled away in his hands. He had lost all track of time. Resisting the tug of the water with all of his strength, hand over hand, he pulled himself from rock to rock hoping for shallower water.


What seemed an eternity later he was on his hands and knees in the shallows – a sandbar of gravel and stones – coughing up water and gasping for breath while the deluge of rain still fell on his head. Too breathless, battered and weary to get to his feet he crawled out of the river’s reach, rolled onto his back and lay with closed eyes while his chest heaved, and the rain pounded hard on his eyelids.


The storm still raged, as wild as ever before; thunder rolled overhead. Adam collected himself and took stock. He still had the clothes he stood up in and the gun in his holster, fastened in with its tie. He knew the charges would be wet through and useless. He had lost his black hat. His arms and his legs were shaking, both with the cold and with the reaction from his near miss with death. It was only by luck that he’d got himself out of the river. His left hand was bleeding, deeply cut across the fleshy base of his thumb, and his elbow – again on the left – hurt like the fires of hell. He didn’t think it was broken, his arm still worked well enough, but it would be a while before he could use it. He fumbled in his coat pocket for the sodden rag of his handkerchief to wrap round his hand; it was a step – a very first step – working towards his survival.


Thunder rolled and roared in the sky. In the next flare of the lightening, Adam got his first glimpse of his new surroundings. The land was low and rolling with little vegetation: a few stunted trees and some wiry scrub brush beaten down by the rain. In that same flicker and flash of stark light he saw a movement – something that wasn’t wind driven rain. The light glinted on the silvered buckle of a harness and gleamed on a dark, rain soaked hide. Adam raised his voice against the blast of the storm; “Hey! Over here!” He doubted that anyone heard him. The next flash of lightening showed him the rump of the horse disappearing into the dark. “Come back here!” Adam started after it, breaking into a shambling run.


The horse was his own. Unnerved by the storm, the bay shied away from him. Adam saw the shiver of light in his eye. “Easy, boy! Easy.” Adam spoke soothingly, knowing the low tone of his voice would carry under the noise of the storm. The horse pricked up his ears to listen; he knew the man well. As far as Adam could tell, he was undamaged, both by his unplanned dip in the river and by his wild run through the rain. Adam picked up the reins and gave him a pat. His gear was all there on the saddle: saddlebags, blanket and rifle; every bit of it was wet.


Adam didn’t know where he was. Everything looked strange in the dark and the rain. He was unsure of how far the river had carried him or how far the horse might have run. He still needed to find some sort of shelter, preferably somewhere warm and out of the wind and the rain. He was soaked to the skin, and his teeth were starting to rattle. A distant outcrop of short trees and rock, briefly seen by the lightening, offered his only hope of protection. He was too stiff with the cold to climb into the saddle; instead, he shortened his grip on the reins and started to walk.


The rocks provided no shelter at all. The shape of them funnelled the wind and made an open channel for the water that ran freely off the more open ground. Beyond, the land flattened out and then rose steeply into the side of a hill. The next flash revealed, on that shelf of flat ground, the broken remains of several timber built shacks.


From what Adam knew of the local geology there was neither gold, nor silver to be found in these sedimentary sandstones and shales. Nevertheless, some hopeful and industrious miner had invested several years of his life digging a long shaft into the hillside in the hope of finding a fortune.


The buildings were nothing more than a sad collection of ruins: broken frameworks and a few loose boards that rattled and banged in the wind and added their noise to the unquiet night. The structures were shattered and long ago abandoned, mere spectral reminders of a grander past returning their substance into the earth. The mine itself was a different matter. There was a warm yellow glow in the entrance, blurrily seen through the rain. Someone was in there with a fire alight and no doubt coffee a-brewing. Adam could taste it already.


Adam knew the rules about walking up unannounced to another man’s campfire. A man didn’t do it unless he planned to get shot. He lifted his voice and shouted over the storm, “Hello in the mine!”


The words were scarcely out of his mouth before the answer came – not the sound of a warm human voice raised in greeting and welcome but the boom and rush of a cannon fired close at hand and a rattle of small shot that peppered the rocks all around him. Regardless of the mud and the water, the wind and the rain, Adam hit the ground in a hurry, dived and rolled into the meagre cover offered by a rock and a bush and kept his head down.


He lay with his face pressed into the mud while a second scatter of shot flew over his head. When he dared to look up it was just in time to see the gelding canter away. In a sudden lull in the noise of the storm he heard the sharp mechanical sounds of a heavy weapon being reloaded. He squeezed himself more tightly into his small patch of cover.


A shaky voice issued out of the mine; “I know you’re out there, you danged varmints!”


Adam sucked in his breath and clenched his teeth hard together as the violence of the storm increased and more icy water fell down on his head. He came to the somewhat belated conclusion that this simply wasn’t his night. He had barely escaped death twice. He was wet, cold and muddy, and he had jarred his elbow all over again when he fell. There was a dark stain on the bandage that wrapped up his hand and a seepage of blood where a stone had cut into his lip. Water ran into his ears and his eyes, and he couldn’t see any way out of his present predicament


There was a broad apron of open ground in front of him. The man in the mine had the high ground. Adam couldn’t get any closer without having his head blown off. He couldn’t make a fight of it even if he’d a mind to; his ammunition was wet. And if he tried to retreat he was apt to get his backside peppered with buckshot. The man holed up in the mine was nobody’s fool. He had a keen eye and a mighty big shotgun, and he was prepared to use it.


The voice sounded rusty from long lack of use. Adam’s agile mind conjured a face to go with it: sun-browned and weathered with a full covering of beard liberally sprinkled with grey, toothless gums and piercing dark eyes – a grizzled old man to be reckoned with.


“Can we talk about this?” Adam yelled.


“You c’n talk all you like, Mister.” The querulous voice came right back at him. “You ain’t gonna jump my claim!”


Adam risked lifting his head; his mouth was filling with water. “I’m not interested in your claim! I just want to get out of this storm!”


Now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see the mine entrance more clearly: a roughly rectangular opening lit by yellow light from inside, supported on either side by drunkenly leaning timbers and from above by a lintel of sagging pine. It didn’t look safe. It did look warm, dry and full of invitation. “How about if I come out with my hands up?” he suggested. Holding a conversation at the top of his lungs was taking its toll on his strength.


“S’possin’ you do?” the old man responded. “I might just up an’ shoot you.”


“Why would you do that?”


“Jist fer the hell of it! I ain’t lettin’ any man jump my claim.”


Adam’s breath hissed in through his teeth. This ridiculous conversation was becoming circular. “I don’t want your claim. I just want to get out of this rain!”


There was a long pause while the old man though about it. Lightening threaded across the sky, and the thunder roared its applause. Clearly, someone above enjoyed the performance. A small stream of water flowed around Adam like a river around a rock. He wasn’t getting one bit drier and began to feel mildly resentful. “What do you want me to do?”


The old man’s voice dropped a note but was nonetheless wary; “You stand up an’ let me get a look at you.”


Adam acknowledged that he was taking a risk, but he couldn’t believe the old man would really shoot him down in cold blood. In any event, he didn’t have a whole lot of choice. He got to his knees and climbed stiffly on to his feet. He raised both his hands to shoulder level, palms open and fingers relaxed and stepped out where the old man could see him in the next flash of light.


There was a movement in the lighted mouth of the mine. By squinting his eyes against the driving rain, Adam could see the rounded black blob of the old man’s head, briefly raised to get a good look at him. “Who’s out there with you?”


Adam was getting annoyed. “There’s no one else here! I’m on my own!”


The old man gave that due consideration. “Come on up here, then. You walk real slow an’ keep them hands up high. I see another man’s face, I’m gonna blast a hole right through your middle.”


Adam felt his skin crawl. He figured the old man meant what he said, and the way that his luck was running tonight… Moving slowly and stiffly, not daring to stumble or stagger, he walked towards the light.


The walk was a short one but it took a long time. Adam didn’t dare hurry. The old man emerged cautiously from behind his cover: a jumble of rocks roughly piled in the entrance and partially blocking the way. The two men looked one another over. The old man was very much as Adam had imagined; he had seen the type a thousand times before in towns scattered all across the western states. Either taciturn or garrulous, always crusty and shrewd, it seemed that the small wiry men could live forever of a diet of hard tack and beans and the juice of a cactus. Clad in the standard shirt, vest and pants of the westerner in indeterminate colours and uncertain fit, he stood at about five feet, and the polished pate of his sun-burnished head came barely to the point of Adam’s shoulder.


Adam had been right about the face of brown leather and the pepper-and-salt sprinkled beard; the mouth was a different matter. Far from being toothless, the old man had jaws formidably armed with an array of ancient brown ivory – and his eyes were a startling periwinkle-blue.


The weapon he held, so steadily aimed at Adam’s belt buckle, was an old-fashioned blunderbuss: short in the stock and wide at the mouth of the barrel. Once it had been decorated with gemstones – now missing – and chased with enamels. Now it was battered and tarnished but still more than capable of blowing a man’s life away. Adam regarded both it and its owner with a great deal of respect.


Adam’s hurt elbow was starting to ache. “Can I put my hands down now?”


The old man reached out and carefully eased Adam’s pistol out of his holster. Their two pairs of eyes watched soberly as the Colt dripped water onto the floor. The old man sucked at his brown, tombstone teeth. “I reckon you can. You don’t look like no claim jumper to me. But you make sure you behave, young fella, or I might just shoot you anyway.”


Adam took the warning on board. He lowered his hands with relief and nursed his sore elbow. “I sure could use some of that coffee.” The delicious aroma that came from the pot by the fire made his mouth water.


The old man laid the blunderbuss aside with some deliberation, propping it up on a lop-sided, cobweb shrouded shelf but still within easy reach. He cast his shrewd eye over Adam. “Reckon you ought ta git out o’ them wet things afore you catch somethin’ fatal. He tossed some more wood on the fire. He had been scavenging deep in the mine and was burning the broken timbers. A lantern hung from a spike hammered into the wall and the shadows they cast – the fire and the lantern between them – cast dancing patterns in every direction. 


Adam was standing in his own, personal puddle. He shrugged himself out of the dripping coat and peeled the sodden shirt off his skin. His flesh, beneath his sun-induced tan, was pale and cold even to the touch of his own chilled fingers. His reluctant benefactor tossed him a blanket. “You can’t stand there buff naked. Wrap yourself up in that.”


Adam was starting to shiver. He un-slung his gunbelt and shucked himself out of his boots and his britches. He was wet through right down to his skin. He pulled the blanket around him – never mind that it smelled rather strongly of mule. The old man poured him a tin mug full of coffee, and Adam sat down on a rock by the fire to drink it. While the storm rumbled on outside in the night, the two men eyed each other warily over the flames.


Well aware of the old man’s scrutiny and not caring one bit, Adam leaned close to the flames and relished the heat as it slowly crept up his face. The firelight lit all the angles and curves, and the warmth set his skin to tingling. It was a face that the ladies of Virginia City had been known to call handsome: a face still youthful but no longer young, mature but nowhere near old. The first touch of heat brushed his chin – neatly rounded with the faintest hint of a cleft – and the soft swell of his lips. His mouth was wide and straight, full without being fleshy, firm and well formed in repose and pleasantly quick to smile whenever the occasion arose. His nose was a slender blade gilded by the light of the flame, and his cheeks, after two weeks n the hills eating what he had with him and what he could catch, were lean and hard but still filled with dimples when they relaxed. The light touched on fine, high cheekbones and dark brow ridges and fired golden highlights in the amber depths of his eyes. The black cap of his hair, still damp although drying rapidly in the rising heat, clung to the contours of his skull and coiled itself neatly into the nape of his neck. Olive-toned, his skin regained some of its healthy colour as his blood warmed and began to run nearer the surface.


The coffee was strong and hot, just what he needed. Adam drank it all down and held out his cup for a refill. “What makes you think someone’s planning to jump your claim?”


The old man was pouring coffee out for himself. He stopped in the act and threw a swift look towards the mouth of the mine as if he still expected trouble to come looming out of the storm. “Couple o’ fellas bin followin’ me ever since I left Carson City. I know fer a fact they ain’t up ta no good.”


Adam agreed that it wasn’t likely. “And you though I was one of them?”


“Sure did.” The old man pulled a sour-puss face as if he still had some doubts and finished filling his cup.


Adam, a college graduate and qualified engineer by profession, turned his head to look ‘round the mine with a practical eye. He was sure that no one had worked there for a good many years. Timbers were cracked and leaned at dangerous angles and crosspieces sagged. There had been small falls of rock here and there where parts of the ceiling had collapsed, and the floor was littered with debris. It all had an air of dusty disuse. A single unlit tunnel dived away into the hill. “It doesn’t look very promising.”


“You know what they say,” the old man said blandly. “things ain’t always what they seem.”


Adam’s eyes had grown heavy. His fight with the river and his long walk leaning into the storm had taken more out of him than he had suspected. He declined the offer of food when the old man made it. There was biscuit and cheese and dried fruits, but Adam just didn’t feel hungry. In fact, he didn’t feel well. All his muscles were aching. There was an increasing weakness in his arms and legs and a curious fluttery feeling inside his belly that he couldn’t explain. Despite the warmth of the fire, he still felt cold deep down inside, and his body was starting to shake.


He looked at the old man; the effort screwed up his face. His vision kept slipping out of focus. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to lie down here and get some sleep.” He knew as he spoke that his words were slurred, and that his voice was fading, but he couldn’t do much about either. He saw the old man get up from his seat and start towards him with a look of concern on his face. He felt himself fold onto the floor.


The old man leaned over him. His face hovered close, but the features were fuzzy, dark against the over-bright light. “Are you all right, Mister?” The rough, ancient voice came from a long way away.


Adam tried hard to answer, but the words wouldn’t come. His mouth belonged to somebody else, and his determination to use it came to no avail. He shut his eyes – just for a moment – and with no more ado, the world slid away. 


Adam dreamed the garish and disjointed dreams of the fevered dreamer. He was at home but his family was missing, and none of the people there knew him. They didn’t understand what he said, nor did they speak his language. They looked Chinese, but their dialect was not the one that Adam had learned from Hop Sing, his family’s Cantonese cook. The more he struggled to make them comprehend who he was, the more they ignored him and the more frustrated and angry he became.


Once, when he opened his eyes, he found an old man beside him – an old man that he didn’t know but who’s ancient, grey-bearded face he vaguely remembered. The old man bathed his face with water that felt icy cold and offered him something to drink. “Don’t you go getting’ lung fever on me, boy,” the old man said gruffly before his voice faded away.


Now the big ranch house was entirely empty. Adam could find no one at all. No fire burned on the hearthstone, and the old coffeepot that constantly sat on the back of the black iron stove in the kitchen was cold. Adam pressed on doggedly, opening door after door into comfortably furnished, unpeopled rooms that he didn’t know. All the while something nagged at the back of his mind, the thought that all this had a meaning that he didn’t grasp.


He dragged open heavy eyelids to find that he was alone in a dimly lit place that he thought might be underground. Faint light filtered from somewhere – he wasn’t sure where. He tried to sit up but found himself constrained by several tightly wound blankets. He had no strength to struggle free. He thought he cried out but his voice came out a mumble and wasn’t heard, leastwise, nobody came.


Now his father was there right in front of him. An impressive, imposing silver-haired man seated in the great leather chair behind the gilded French desk in the study. Ben looked at him sternly. His low voice rumbled deep in his chest; “Adam, I want you to explain to me what this is all about.”


Adam wished that he could. He opened his mouth to speak, to explain that he needed help but no sound came out. Ben’s frown deepened into an angry scowl. Adam was reminded of a scene from his childhood. He had done something wrong but couldn’t, for the life of him, remember what it had been.


The next time he opened his eyes his head was much clearer. It was night-time. The fire of old, broken timbers was burning brightly beside him, and the lantern was lit. Adam tried to sit up, and the old man came over to help him; he stuffed something solid behind his back. “I figured you’d be wakin’ up about now.” The bright-blue eyes regarded him critically. “Looks like you’re gonna make it. How d’you feel?”


“Like I’ve been kicked by a whole string of mules.” It was true. Adam felt weak, sore and bruised; his arms and legs ached. “I guess I just keeled over.”


“Reckon you did.”


Adam eased his position and settled his back against what felt like a saddle. “I’m sorry I gave you a scare.”


“Takes a whole lot more than a man with a fever ta put a scare in ta me.” The old man handed a mug of something that looked and smelled a bit like chicken broth but plainly wasn’t. “Git yourself wrapped around that.” 


Adam decided not to enquire. He sipped dutifully. The brew in the mug didn’t taste at all bad. “I can’t thank you enough for helping me out.”


“T’weren’t nothin’.” The old man shrugged thanks aside. “T’weren’t nothin’ I wouldn’t do fer any man.”


Adam sighed and began to relax. The warmth of the fire and the food in his belly was making him weary all over again. “Tomorrow I shall have to try and catch up with my horse.” At that moment the prospect wasn’t inviting.


“Ain’t no need o’ that,” the old man told him. “He came inta camp just as soon as he got hungry. Came runnin’ up ta me as pretty as you please. I got him stabled alongside my mule.” 


“That’s real good of you.” Adam had more that he wanted to say, more thanks to offer and questions he needed to ask, but right there and then it all seemed to be too much trouble. He lay his head back and shifted his back into a comfortable spot. The old man reached out and took the cup from his drooping hand as his eyes closed, and he drifted into a deep, natural sleep.


When he woke up, it was morning. Sunlight poured in through the mouth of the mine. Adam propped himself up on one elbow and took a long look around. The old man had made the cave quite homely with his pots and his pans on the straightened-up shelf and his blankets folded up on one side. The blunderbuss was missing. Wherever the old man had gone, he had taken it with him. Adam’s clothes were spread out to dry on the rocks. The lantern was out, and the fire burned down to a few flickering flames.


Adam stepped out from the mine into the bright, morning sunlight. He had some breakfast under his belt; the old man had left him a pot of hot coffee, a chunk of hard bread and a double handful of fruit, dried apricots, cherries, apple slices and dates. He had dressed himself carefully. The bruises on his body were still sore but healing. His elbow was stiff, and the cut on his hand had been bandaged. It made it hard to do up his buttons. The shirt was relatively easy, but his britches had shrunk. They were hard to get on, and they fitted the curves of his butt like a tight kidskin mitten. The woollen coat was still wet; as the day wasn’t cold, he went without it. He had cleaned and reloaded the Colt .44. His saddlebags were amongst his gear, and he had been pleased that his powder was dry. The late summer storm had passed out over the desert, and the sky was a vivid, sparkling blue.


Adam checked on his horse – the gelding was none the worse for his ordeal and had made firm friends with the old man’s sturdy brown mule – then he picked his way down to the river.


The mud-bank that had saved Adam’s life showed just above water, and the old man was there, panning the newly deposited sediment for gold. Adam splashed out to join him; “Good morning.”


“Mornin’.” The old man squinted up at him, the sun in his eyes, Adam a dark silhouette against the brightness. “I figured you’d show your face about now.”


Adam looked around at the low, sandy hills, partly clothed in tough, wiry grasses and low scrub brush already recovering from the ravages of the storm. Awakened by the rain, the purple blossoms of nut grass and the yellow of buttercups and dandelions brightened the landscape.  

Further away were the rocks and the trees that he had seen only briefly in the midst of the wind and the rain and, beyond them, the ruins of the old mine building were just in sight, still resistant and stubborn and battered. The colours were vibrant and everything had a crystal clarity in the mid-morning light. “It sure looks a whole lot different than it did last night.” 


The old man raised a quizzical eyebrow. “An’ how would you know that? T’weren’t last night that you seen it. Two days an’ the night in between you laid sick.”


Adam wasn’t unduly surprised. The half-healed state of his bruises and the growth of his beard had told him as much. “Any sign of your claim jumpers?”


“Nary a one – but that don’t mean that they ain’t around. They’re out there someplace, watchin’ an’ waitin’ and bidin’ their time.” The old man nodded his head knowingly towards the seemingly innocent hills.


Adam cast a critical eye at the river. Here in the shallows where he had dragged himself of the river – was it so long ago – the current ran slow. Further out, beyond the sheltering mud-bank, the main stream was swift, smooth and turgid, stained brown with the silt washed down from the hills and with a swift undertow that Adam remembered too well. He had a vivid bruise on the point of his hip to prove the force of its violence. There would be no chance of wading the gelding across any time soon. Adam resigned himself to being too late for both his appointments.


He watched the swirl of the water in the flat-bottomed pan. A question that gnawed at his mind leapt from his tongue before he had given it leave; “Why are you panning the river if the gold’s back there in the mine?”


The old man raised his blue eyes and gave him a long, hard stare. “Did I ever tell you there was gold in that mine?”


“Well, no. Not exactly.” Adam hunkered down beside him. “You were there in the mine, and you talked about claim jumpers. I assumed that this was your claim.”


“Just shows you shouldn’t jump ta conclusions.” The old man sucked at his teeth. “I was campin’ out in that mine ta keep out o’ the rain, just like you was. I ain’t tellin’ you where my claim is.” 


Adam laughed his sudden, swift laugh and gave him a flashing white smile. “And I sure ain’t askin’!”


To pass the time while they waited for the river to go down and for Adam to regain enough of his health to make the ride home, the old man taught him to pan for gold. Adam found it a slower and more painstaking process than he had ever imagined. First of all he learned to select the fine muds and gravels from the upstream curve of the bank, on the right hand side of the river where the sun shone brightest at noon. It could take five or ten minutes to wash and sift each panful of silt. He crouched on his haunches on the low mud bank, spinning the water around and around; it took him a while to learn the small flip that spilled light sand and stones over the edge of the pan. Gradually, he reduced and refined what was left until there was no more than a spoonful of fine, dark gravel that the old man called drag, covered by an inch of clear river water. The old man leaned over his shoulder; “Slowly, boy. Take it real slow.”


Adam’s dark, handsome face was tight with concentration. He found it hard to keep his hands steady. At the old man’s word, he fanned out the drag on the flattened bottom of the sheet-iron pan. “There!” the old man said with satisfaction. “Will you look at them colours! Talk about beginner’s luck.”


The dark grit had shifted aside to reveal the sparkle of gold in the pan: a bright comet tail, minute flecks of precious metal washed down from some hidden lode high up in the hills. Adam picked them out carefully with the tip of his pocket-knife and stashed them away in a small leather sack that the old man gave him. Encouraged, he went back for more.


For the rest of the time he slept, groomed the gelding and cleaned his tack, working oil deep into the leather of saddle and bridle so that it remained soft and supple and didn’t dry out and split. He dried out his blankets and his spare shirt and pants, spreading them out on the rocks in the sun. Most of the foodstuffs that remained in his saddlebags had to be thrown away. The rest of the time, he simply sat with the old man and exchanged the time of day while they watched the river go by. It was a brief and idyllic existence that couldn’t possibly last: a few days’ hiatus in the course of two men’s busy and vastly different lives. It came to an end in an explosion of violence late on a bright afternoon.


Adam and his new-found friend had finished their work for the day. Adam tucked away his small, hard won treasure – a bare thimbleful of pure, bright-yellow gold – into the small ticket pocket behind his belt and straightened and stretched his aching back. His bruises had faded, and his hand was half healed. Only his arm still gave him trouble: small, sharp shooting pains from the point of his elbow whenever he lifted weight


The sunlight sloped into the west as the sun leaned hard on the mountains. The old man picked up his pan and his shovel and reached for his blunderbuss. “Guess we’d better go fix us some supper. Them fish look like mighty fine eating.” He smacked his lips with anticipation.


Adam had two, fat, blue-backed trout on a string. He had constructed a fish trap from fragments of wood gleaned from the ruined mine buildings, and it had worked like a charm. He turned and stooped to lift the fish from the river where he had left them to keep them cool. As he turned, he caught sight of a movement up on the flank of the hill. One furtive, shadowy figure eased itself into cover while another sidled away. The late sunlight gleamed on dulled-down metal as someone levelled a gun. There was no time to formulate a properly worded warning. Adam let rip with a yell; “Get down!”


Adam dived one way and the old man, the other; both hit the ground in a roll. A hail of bullets, hastily fired without aiming, kicked up the dust and sent splinters of stone flying into their faces. On hands and knees, the old man scrambled into shelter behind an outcrop of rocks. Adam found himself back in the river with his shirt wet and clinging tight to his skin and the icy water up to his groin. He had to hold the Colt high to keep his charges dry.


The current flowed swiftly but not with the overwhelming force it had carried before. Adam was able to make headway against it. He worked his way slowly upstream, using the handholds that had helped him before. Over and above the sounds of the river he could hear the gunfight still going on in a somewhat desultory fashion: the intermittent rifle fire interspersed with the occasional blast of the blunderbuss. The old man was holding his own.


In the eye of his mind, Adam could picture the scene. The two faceless, indistinct, man-shaped forms moving apart, drifting from shadow to shadow and working their way down the hill. They would keep the old man pinned down behind his pile of boulders. No doubt they wondered where his companion had got to; with luck, they would think him washed away with the stream. Adam figured that they had made the same basic mistake that he had and thought that the old man’s claim was here, at the mine. Having bided their time for several days, they had finally run out of patience and decided to make their move.


Adam clambered out of the river as soon as he came to a break in the bank. He had travelled about half a mile and could still hear the gunfire clearly. Careless of his wet pants and boots, he made his way ‘round the hill with all the fluid, feline speed and grace of a black coated panther. His idea was to get behind the two men.


He found their horses hidden among the low rocks: a rangy bay and a grey-nosed roan gelding. He took the time to loosen their cinches and slip off their bridles before he turned them loose. He climbed the faint path that led up the hill and rounded the shoulder. The old man’s voice was raised loud and clear in defiance; “Danged claim jumpers!”


From his vantage-point above and behind them, Adam could see the two men clearly. Their paths were converging now, closing in on the place where the old man lay hidden. They had the advantage. The old blunderbuss took some time to reload. Adam levelled the Colt .44. “I think that’s far enough, gentlemen.”


The two men swung round together – two marionettes on a single string. They found themselves confronted directly by the angry black maw of the six-gun.


For the first time, Adam got a good look at their faces. One was young, lank-haired and blond beneath the slouch brim of his hat, heavy eyed and unbearded although stubbled by several day’s growth. The other was older and fiercer with lots of grey in his whiskers. They were faces that Adam would know if he ever saw them again. Both wore the same look of surprise.


“Throw down the rifles,” Adam told them, “and drop the gunbelts.”


The two men exchanged long, meaningful looks. Adam wasn’t prepared to stand any nonsense; he pulled the hammer all the way back to emphasise what he said. The long guns clattered onto the ground, and the gunbelts followed. Adam straightened up from his crouch and began to relax, content that he had the upper hand.


He had reckoned without the old man. He came boiling out of his dubious shelter as mad as a soaking wet hen. “Danged varmints!” he yelled and brandished the blunderbuss.


The crooks found themselves between formidable opponents: the wild-eyed, angry old man robustly armed with the ancient shotgun and the younger one with the Colt .44. They didn’t take long to make up their minds. Adam was by far the least terrifying of the two. As one, leaving their guns on the ground behind them, they started towards him, breaking into a run when the old man bellowed.


Adam watched them come with some confusion and growing alarm; he wouldn’t shoot unarmed men.  Then they were past him, running hard for the side of the hill and the spot where they had left their horses. The old man let rip with the blunderbuss. Both men yelled, leapt high in the air and ran all the faster. They didn’t seem likely to stop.


Adam holstered the Colt and gazed after them, his hands on his hips, until they disappeared over the hill. The old man came up to him, slightly breathless, sucking hard on his teeth and ramming another charge into the barrel. “That’ll keep ‘em goin’ fer a bit.”


Adam couldn’t help but be curious; “What are you loading into that thing?”


The old man cocked a grizzled, grey eyebrow. “Buckshot an’ rocksalt,” he said with an evil grin. “Enough to pepper their hides.”


Adam laughed and slapped him hard on the back. “Even if they catch up with their horses, I doubt that they’ll feel much like riding.”


Chuckling, the old man gathered up guns and gunbelts while Adam looked ‘round for his lost string of fish.


Dawn broke clear, and the day promised to be warm.  The river had dropped during the night to within its usual boundaries, and the water ran clear.  It was time for Adam to saddle up and move on before his father called out the Army to search for him. He offered the old man his hand. “I figure I owe you.”


The old man shook his head gravely. “No, son. You don’t owe me a thing.”


“If you’re ever passing the Ponderosa, at least give me the chance to repay your hospitality.”


The bushy grey eyebrow lifted. “I might just do that.”


Adam turned to the bay and lifted himself into the saddle. The old man, leading his mule on a long length of rope, set off into the desert, heading in some roundabout way to whatever patch of the badlands he had staked as his claim. His mind was already far away and on something else entirely. He didn’t look back. Adam watched him go with a smile on his face. He didn’t know if he would ever see the old man again. He hoped that he would. He turned the gelding’s head for the ford in the river and home.



Potter’s Bar 2002.