by Tony Diem

Old Willie and Maggie in search of gold.

Sutter’s Mill

The drive through California was harried and Mark arrived at the title office in Nevada City just in time for the closing.  He was signing papers for his first house purchase, a hundred year old home built by an actual forty-niner.  Mark was excited at the prospect of looking for some old or historic artifacts in the recessed corners of it and hiking in the woods just behind it in search of old mines and glory holes.  Mark looked for a new job, a new home and Nevada City was it.  Nevada City got its start as a gold mining town with the insurgence of 49ers during California’s Gold Rush in the mid-1800’s.  It is set in the Sierras with Ponderosa Pines and spruces interspersed and survived most of the 1900's as a living ghost town which now booms as a tourist attraction and a center for high, cultured artisans.  This was Mark's new home, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of "The Valley", just north of Los Angeles, where he grew up, went to school and worked for the municipal water district. 

He arrived in town after driving most of the day up from Palm Springs, the last stop on a childhood dream of touring baseball spring training camps in the Cactus League of Arizona and California.  In all, his tour of the Cactus League took a little over two weeks.  During that time on the road he caught up on some lecture CD’s, listened to stories about the Wild West and finally closed the cover on A Golden Past, a book about California’s mining history.  Mark stepped out of the title office holding the keys in his hand, stared at them for a while and thought about his new job and his life in this small town.  He snatched up the keys in a closed fist and shoved them into his pocket.  He headed over to the Quick-n-Cheap, got a bite to eat, and grabbed a few items for his new, quite unfurnished home.  The rooms were small, the floors worn hardwoods and sounds echoed throughout the vacant dwelling.  He brought in what belongings and clothes he could fit in his car, the rest, including his dog, would be coming up in a week or so.  He threw down his sleeping bag and pad, hunted for his pillow to no avail, then crawled in; hardly able to contain his excitement. 

The smell of paint still permeated the room as Mark listened to the sounds of rustling pine trees outside his window.  He imagined the trees swaying as the sounds would come and go with the ebb and flow of the wind.  It was more soothing than the drone of cars on a freeway, the squealing of tires, the occasional purring of a Jake-brake or the other myriad of sounds he'd grown up listening to through an open window.  His house creaked a time or two, then a gentle patter of rain was introduced into the mix, as flashes of light could be seen in the windows.  The rumbling sounds of thunder were low but not in sync enough to count off the distance.  The rain continued to comfort Mark as it made its way across the valley and the volume of everything dissipated to silence as sleep overtook him. 

More of Gravy

Mark was startled awake by the sound of breaking twigs and crackling understory; he heard footsteps and the heavy hoofs of an animal—they felt close.  His weary eyes peered out from behind his sleeping bag, a waxing moon provided the only light for the Rorschach-like shadows cast about in the room.  His eyes closed and his mind went to work on the patterns he saw in them.  His thoughts wandered, “it was a man carrying a shovel.  There was a horse—no a packhorse.  Oh enough.  It was like those clouds in the sky—was it two men? No, just shadows—just trees.  Go to sleep!” His eyes opened heavily and stared at a blank wall, “see there’s nothing”.  He groaned as his body contorted under a self-initiated stretch.  He was asleep once again.  “Klankity-klat!” Mark’s eyes opened to the site of the wood paneled ceiling.  He listened intently but there was nothing more.  A minute passed, and as his eyes desperately tried to close they followed the patterns in the ceiling and were hurriedly pursued by his eyelids.  No rain, no wind, no creaks he thought to himself, yet in that last squint of vision stood a grubby miner among some trees accompanied by a heavily laden mule.  Mark strained to keep his eyes open, and the man made his way across a grove of trees, the mule gently followed close behind and Mark instinctively curled his legs in as it stepped over him.  With one last effort he peered through his tired eyes only to see a blank moonlit white wall and nothing else.  The room went dark as clouds past in front of an oblong shaped moon.  The wind shook the trees and Mark looked toward the window and thought about what he saw, took in a deep breath and scrunched up the fleece jacket he was using for a pillow.  He closed his eyes for what seemed only a moment and the next thing he knew sunlight was beginning to fill the room. 

The next morning Mark headed outside onto his porch to have some cereal, orange juice and take in the start of a new day.  The air was fresh, crisp and filled with the scent of pine.  His deck was only a few feet off the ground, small, but functional and the yard butted right up against forest service land.  As he sat on the corner of the railing he could see deer in a meadow off in the distance.  He set the bowl on the railing and thought about what he saw in his dream.  It left him wondering and thinking about a scene from the Twilight Zone, where an unnamed man walks through a town alone and finds himself in a soda shop discussing his plight with himself in a mirror.  "You remember Scrooge Ol' Buddy?" He asks his reflection.  "It's what he said to that ghost Jacob Marley, he said, 'you may be an undigested bit of beef.  A crumb of cheese, a blot of mustard, a fragment of an undone potato.  But there is more of gravy than of grave about you.  ' You must be.  But now I’ve had it!" Mark felt the same way, somewhat frustrated, but convinced it was that lousy microwaved burrito from the gas station last night, just a bit of indigestion, not a ghost.  Mark thumped on his sternum as if he was going to burp, and made his way down the steps into his yard. 

After eating, he set out on the game trail he saw while leaning over the deck railing.  It was well worn, and the opening into his yard was amassed with deer droppings.  The trail made its way through forest and emptied into a meadow.  It then crossed mid-thigh high grass for several hundred yards into another wooded area.  The trail climbed a bit more before reaching a small plateau in a grove of trees.  Mark then came upon an area devoid of forest debris where a ring of large rocks lay.  Within it was another circle of rocks that were darkened and charred.  There were also beer cans and wrappers strewn all around.  Mark had come across a little hangout spot.  He sat on one of the larger rocks and wondered what kids would talk about while a fire burned, they drank cheap beer, and listened to some music on a portable boom box.  With the intention of coming up later to dispose of them, he gathered up the cans and collected up all the trash into the smaller ring, then headed back to his house. 

In the following week the moving truck would be delivering his furniture and his parents would be bringing Charlie, his five year old Aussie Sheppard-Border Collie mix.  He started his days now with a walk on his little deer trail with his dog, usually going a bit further each time until he worked up to a nice little routine to get the ‘Chuckster’ and himself some exercise.  He bought a new bicycle, a simple cruiser and had it set up with racks and baskets and enjoyed being able to ride to work and make an occasional run into town for groceries or other small errands.  Life was busy, with some remodeling on the house, new places to see, historic places to visit and his new job.  He was settling in at work at the water treatment plant.  He was making friends with co-workers and constantly learning more about the area; his job was demanding and that was the reason he took the position and moved to the area.  Things were good and he almost forgot all about the grubby old miner.  As the tourism season was developing into full bloom, more and more business used images of 49ers to attract the many tourists and Mark would stop and recall that first night in his house. 

Trail No.  27

The All-Star game had gone into extra innings and Mark found himself asleep on the couch.  He reached over to turn off the infomercial and saw something odd in the reflection of the crackling, black screen.  He turned to look and there was the miner near the dinning room table, looking over his shoulder and around at the trees that were amongst his settings.  He petted the nose of the mule; cupped his hand over its long twitching ear and asked it if she wouldn’t “keep a listen out there”.  Mark sat up and watched him as he paced off some trees and seemed to scribble some notes on a piece of leather.  The neighbor's motion light came on, and Mark looked toward the window for a brief moment, when he turned back, the miner was gone.  Mark again thought it was a dream, probably from sleeping in a different setting like his first night in the house.  Mark got up and made his way to his bedroom, the motion light turned off, and he made the last few steps in the hallway by touch rather then sight.  Stretched out on her dog bed, Charlie’s tail thumped on the floor, the sound resonated throughout the house as Mark pulled back the covers and made his way under them.  He called her up onto the bed where she curled up next to Mark and they both drifted off to sleep. 

Throughout the summer, Mark picked up his trail book, grabbed his daypack, strapped a pack onto Charlie and headed out into the nearby history filled mountains.  There were tons of trails in the area and Mark compared the notes in his book with information from co-workers and other locals to see which ones were really worth doing.  From old abandoned railroad beds, to trails maintained by the Forest Service, one in particular stood out for a couple of reasons.  The way it meandered among the trees and through meadows reminded him of the trail out his back door.  But what really intrigued Mark about this trail was its history.  Trail No.  27, the Twin Thieves Trail, was named for two notorious brothers.  They were tried, convicted, and hung on the spot by vigilante miners for the brutal murder and robbery of a fellow gold-digger.  Their bodies were left hanging from their gallows as a warning to other near-do-wells.  Mark could not believe the audacity with which these men committed their crime, nor could he forget the image he created of them hanging from that tree, their corpses rotting on their ropes. 

Shh! No Talking in the Library

Mark was exhausted from the revelry of his company picnic.  The sun was barely setting on this late-August day as he lay down in full dress on top of the covers and closed his eyes.  It was a loud thumping sound that woke him.  Mark looked up to see the miner take several swings with his pickaxe into the ground at the foot of his bed.  He watched as the miner grabbed the short spade from the mule and began clearing some of the felled trees and debris from where he had been swinging the hand tool.  Mark slowly turned his body toward the edge of the bed and got up and walked toward his guest.  He could feel the needles, twigs and understory at his feet.  He was standing next to the miner when the mule snorted, startling both of them.  As they both turned to look at the mule, Mark saw nothing but his dresser and wardrobe. 

Mark knew he couldn't have been dreaming, it was all too real, the noises, the smell of the pine; but the window was open.  There was that smell of wet soil; Charlie had been digging in the yard again and had the muddy paws to prove it.  It was all too easy to explain away.  It was a dream, there couldn't be a ghost.  He convinced himself that he had read too many stories about ghost towns and mining camps and that what he saw was his imagination running aimlessly through all those memories.  He thought about lucid dreaming, maybe that was it, he was making it up, controlling where the dream was going.  That made more sense then it being a ghost.  Well, at least it was more settling.  He thought about it and decided to look into lucid dreaming at the library. 

"Interesting miner characters,” the library assistant started, “the hillsides here have hundreds of stories son.  " He was an old school bus driver retired now and sorted books two days a week.  Mr.  Holden was squat, what hair he had left was more salt than pepper and had a very stern voice, probably from settling kids down on busses all those years.  "Son, I could tell you stories 'till your ears bled.  There's Old Mule Head Jackson, Patsy Maybel, who dressed like a man, and swore better than any foul-mouthed fool I know.  There are also gunslingers, no Wild Bills or Doc Holidays, but we had our share of crooked card players, charlatans and two-bit madams.  Any in particular you're interested in kid?"

"Not sure.  How ‘bout the grubby miner type?" Mark slid the dream interpretation book back into its spot on the shelf.  "Why don't you start there?"

"Ok, let's start there " Mr.  Holden turned and walked toward the local history section.  He went on to describe about half dozen grubby old miners that panned or dug for gold and a few crazy ones that danced in the moonlight barefoot.  But none of them really sounded like the intriguing man that was at the foot of his bed digging a hole, only confirming to Mark that his visitor was only a dream, and heck, it was more interesting and a lot easier than reading all that psychobabble about dreams. 

A Brown and Worn Rag

BAM! A crashing sound abruptly woke Mark.  His eyes opened briefly as he concluded it must have been dishes settling in the kitchen sink.  Marks eyes slowly re-opened as a strange sense came over him and the rustling sounds of someone moving about in the room grew louder.  He looked out across the room and there was his guest leaning over, and picking up whatever it was he dropped next to the bed.  Mark could make out that it was a large, flat metal bowl; a gold pan.  The miner was setting it inside another one that was set neatly next to the hole.  Mark again got up and walked around the room, taking in the trees, the earthen smell of the freshly dug hole, and the worn odor of an unwashed miner.  He looked for markings on the mule, the saddle bags and on the miner, but couldn't make any out.  Mark petted the stiff hairs of the mule that nuzzled his hand as he pressed down on the top of its head. 

The miner reached into a leather bag on the side of the mule and pulled out a tightly rolled brown and worn rag.  He crouched on one knee as he slowly unrolled it.  Mark was eager to get a glimpse but couldn't as the miner suspiciously crowded over it concealing the object.  He re-rolled it into the rag, placed the wad into the gold pan, took the bottom pan and placed it on top of the other.  With some twine he bundled them together and leaned over and placed the object neatly into the hole.  Mark was reading the words stamped on the bottom of the pan when he noticed that the miner was crying.  Mark tried to look into his eyes.  As the miner began to rub the tears from his face, it was as if he was wiping himself out of Marks sight. 

By far this was the most time he had spent with his odd friend and the closest any of his dreams were to each other.  What he read on the pan was equally disturbing.  He had to do more research, there had to be more to this.  He went back to the library only to find that Mr.  Holden wasn't there.  He asked around for someone else, and then the head librarian suggested going up to the cemetery and asking the caretaker.  "His family, the Hermann's, have roots in the community from the first days of the gold rush.  His great-grand-something set up a mining camp and general store in the days following the Sutter Mill discovery," she told him. 

Robert Hermann

In his seventies, Robert Hermann lives above the Old Bernham Bar where the Hermann General Store stood over 150 years ago.  Mark knocked on the door at the top of a narrow flight of stairs.  Four stern raps, and he heard the creak of floorboards and the metallic squeal of the door handle turning. 

"Can I help you?" Came the deep voice of the man in the doorway.  Robert stood just over six feet, looked good for his age, spoke deliberately and had a comforting way about himself.  A good-looking grandfather Mark thought to himself. 

"I hope you can.  " Mark replied. 

Robert asked Mark in.  He fetched him a soda and listened as his visitor explained what it was he was looking for.  Mark made up a story about seeing a picture of his grubby old miner at an office somewhere.  Robert seemed curious, and let Mark continue with some details that seemed more involved than just the thousand words a picture could tell. 

Robert listened intently, then spoke up, "The murder of Gold Dust Willie". 

Mark looked at him.  "What was that you said?"

"Your mystery man, sounds like William Evans.  The locals called him Gold Dust Willie.  He claims to have found a nugget the size of a pinecone.  No one believed him, so they said he had spent too much time sniffing gold dust.  "

"Well, is it true? Did he.  .  .did he have a nugget?"

"No one knows son.  Old Willie was killed, quite brutally.  But I stand corrected, the only people to know the truth are Willie and likely, the vermin who killed him.  "

Mark didn't want to ask, but it got the better of him.  "How was he killed?"

"Uh, where did you say you lived?"

"I bought the Miller place, out on Dickenson.  "

"Oh, out by Willow Hollow.  Didn't they just remodel it?"

"Uh? Yeah.  It's out by Willow Hollow, and they just touched it up really.  " Replied Mark, before eagerly asking, "Why do you want to know where I live?"

"He was killed not too far from you.  Just up the hillside there.  The side of his head was cleaved in by his own pick axe.  " Robert grimaced as if receiving the blow himself.  "No one really knows if he had the nugget or not.  They never found the person who killed him, nor the nugget on his person or on his mule.  "

"What happened to the mule?"

"Actually, funny you asked, my great-granddad took it.  Kept it and rented it out from time to time.  "

"Maggie.  " Mark whispered. 

"What was that? How did you know the name of that mule?"

Frantically Mark thought of any number of reasons he knew Maggie's name.  "Oh, it was written on the back of the photo.  "

"So the name of the mule was on this photo, but not Willies? Son, I was born at night, but not--"

"I've seen him in my house.  .  .walking with her, dihg--", Mark didn’t want to say much more, then continued, "Looking around and talking to her.  "

Robert raised an un-groomed eyebrow, "What else is he doing?"

"Please Mr.  Hermann, you can't tell anyone.  I don't want any stories going around about this.  I don't need people around here thinking I'm some sort of crazy city boy.  "

"Son, you're not the first, nor do I believe will you ever be the last person to see Willie.  " He tried to comfort Mark, "He makes his rounds.  And besides, the whole town already knows you're a crazy city boy.  "

Sleepless Nights

Excited by knowing the name of his sporadic guest, Mark went by the hardware store, picked up a rake, shovel and a pickaxe.  The total for the three items after the sale price reduction came to $27.00.  Mark really didn't know what he was going to do, but he thought what could it hurt.  Robert said it was near his place where Old Willie was killed, and at times he could swear the game trail took him right past the grove of trees he saw Willie and Maggie in, and besides the tools would come in handy when he started work on his raised flower beds. 

Mark didn't sleep well most nights.  He often drifted in and out of sleep hoping to catch one more glimpse of Willie, the dug hole and of course what was in that worn, brown rag.  He took in every sound he heard.  Being an old house there were many creaks and squeaks that echoed in the hard surface abode.  He kept going over everything he could remember about Willie, Maggie and the location of the trees, but couldn't get the awful feeling about Willie's death out of his mind. 

At work, Mark spent his days installing new system and software and instructing the staff at the water treatment plant on the upgrades he was hired to oversee.  The job required a lot of attention and at times was meticulous.  Some days he would spend several minutes staring at a gauge or some other instrument that didn't change much, while his mind wandering through that grove of trees as he thought about Old Willie.  Other times he would sit at his desk drawing out Willie’s shovel, pickaxe and that rolled up brown rag.  Co-workers noticed, most thought not to ask what was on his mind.  The few that did would get stock replies about how he had stayed up too late finishing up some painting or other fixer-up type chore; the start of baseball playoffs was another good excuse.  In this sense, Mr.  Hermann wasn’t too far off on his assessment of the crazy city boy. 

A Cold, Moonlit Night

Mark was running at full stride up the game trail chasing after Charlie who was barking and seemed to be running after something.  He called after her, but she ignored him.  He came to the fire pit and Charlie was there, sitting.  Not barking, not doing anything she just sat there staring into the woods.  Mark could see his breath as he tried to catch it.  As he leaned over to ask Charlie what was up, he stopped, hunched over her and could see what she was staring at.  He made out the faint silhouettes of two men.  They were hard to make out in the little light that managed to trickle through the pines.  Mark leaned away from them, and try to obscure himself behind a tree.  The shadows cast by the overstory played tricks on his eyes.  Slowly Charlie got up and went back down the trail, Mark did not notice.  He could hear them, but not any clearer then he could see them.  He carefully made his way toward them, walking softly and hiding behind trees.  Moonlight danced on their features, they were young and nearly identical in appearance.  They were rugged, wearing long coats and cowboy hats.  Mark first thought they were the actors from the gunfights in town.  But as he listened more, he could tell this was no act. 

They were talking about robbing someone.  Their seriousness interrupted by drunken laughter and slaps on the back, haunted Mark.  But whom do they want to rob? As Mark rubbed his hands and curled them together and blew into them to keep warm, he heard something.  The three of them all looked up the slope together.  It was a familiar sound to him, it was Maggie snorting.  Then all at once it came to him.  This is why the woods seemed so familiar.  It was here where he first saw Willie.  He could smell moist, freshly upturned earth.  He was gasping for breath, could Willie really be here.  He yelled at the two men, they seemed to turn toward him, but then their gazes focused back up the slope. 

Mark darted off into the trees to his left.  Following a portion of the game trail he ran with Charlie so many times.  He thought he could get around to Willie before they did, but it was a long way around.  And there, amongst the trees in a small clearing was Maggie.  Alone.  Where was Willie? He called his name in the dark, not really expecting an answer, and there was none.  He looked hard across the opening and he finally saw Willie carving something into a tree.  They both heard something beyond the opening.  It was the two men, one carrying a bottle, the other Willie's shovel. 

"How 'bout it, Willie?" The words came out deep and slow, as he lifted the bottle for a drink. 

The other spoke, seemingly excited to see Willie, "Yeah Willie, where's that nugget yer ahways talkin' 'bout.  " With a little two-foot side-stepping-hop, he thrust the shovel into the ground. 

"You know we're pretty dern tired of you talkin' 'bout it, it's 'bout time you show'd it to us.  " Without taking an eye off Willie, he took another swig of the vile liquid. 

"Come on Willie.  " The other beckoned him with the shovel.  "Tell us.  We won' tell no one.  "

Mark approached the scene, but could do nothing but watch.  He turned to see that Willie had carved his initials into the tree: "W E".  As they closed toward Willie, Mark saw their young, but weathered appearance.  The bottle carrier had his coat draped back over his gun.  His palm rested on the butt end of the revolver--his fingers danced over the intricately carved handle.  The bottle made its way slowly toward his lips, his eyes never blinked as the glare on Willie was unyielding.  One look into his eyes and Mark became all too familiar with the term 'yellah'; it wasn't the night's cold air that sent that shiver down his spine. 

Willie took a step back, as the varlet twisted the shovel into the needles and dirt, he placed his boot onto the spade's upper lip and slowly rocked.  Mark peered into his eyes and saw a vacant soul.  Although his face had not seen a shave in quite some time, clearly visible was the scar that stretched from his jaw-line to the bridge of his nose.  He could make out an inch-wide burn above his sun-bleached scarf.  It ran along the side of his neck and across his partially missing ear; apparently the hangman's noose failed in its task.  He looked once again into each man's eyes and saw similarities in their appearance, but what stood out most was their depravity.  Mark sensed their scheming and the enormity of what was to come.  Willie was all too aware, and although he stood tall, his uneasiness shown through in his gestures and the resignation in his eyes. 

Willie tried to use humor to bide some time.  "Boys, it's just some dumb tale I tell.  I ain't got no nugg'.  " He forced out a chuckle, as he looked toward the ground almost in shame.  "Now go on.  Go on back to town and leave an ol' man be.  "

"Thing is Willie, we knows 'bout the nugget.  We knows you got it.  Now where is it?" The one said animated and excited, as he hoisted the shovel over his shoulder. 

"I don't have the nugget.  Come on boys, le' me be.  " Willie's desperation came through in his voice.  "If its money you want, I don't got much, but you can have it.  " Willie fumbled with his shirt pocket, took out some bills and waved it at them.  "Go on back to town.  Have a drink on me.  Bu’ lee’ me be.  "

"Much obliged, Willie.  " Keeping the bottle at his side and lifting his hand from his gun he reached out and took the offering.  "Then you won' mind us lookin' around on your mule here.  Will ya?"

Before Willie could reply, the shovel smacked him on the side of the head.  Mark could hear Willie's deep and hard reptilian breaths as he lay there unconscious, his face in the pine needles of his freshly covered, buried treasure.  The men strew Maggie's belongings all over the opening.  No nugget.  When they were done searching her they smacked her hindquarters scaring her off.  They angrily turned toward the listless body of Willie. 

He took one last gulp from the bottle, and without emotion traded it in for Willie's pickaxe, "We're tired of you ol' man.  "

Mark couldn't watch.  The sound nearly sickened him. 

A Secret Revealed

Tears covered his face as he awoke from his dream in a cold sweat.  Charlie was at the side of the bed and was more interested in comforting Mark than eating.  Mark went to his truck, picked up the tools, and made his way back up the game trail.  The familiar smell of moist earth filled the air as the shovel scraped a metal object.  He tapped at it, then dropped to his knees.  He reached into the hole which was as deep as it was in his bedroom.  He used his hands to clear the remaining dirt, and there it was, a 12" circular piece of metal engraved with: Hermann General Store Nevada Camp.  As he stood above the hole holding the pans and surveying around the clearing, the emotions of the events of last night overwhelmed him.  When he opened his eyes he could see the rust circles from Willie's tears next to a few wet drops of his own. 

Once back at his house, where an excited Charlie greeted him, Mark laid out some newspaper.  He placed the pans there, took a deep breath and cut the twine with his pocketknife.  He lifted the pan, and there was the worn brown rag.  Mark's heart raced as he slowly unraveled it and revealed Gold Dust Willie’s final secret.  .  . 

William Evans

Mark laid the pans into the hole, took his time covering them back up, scattering needles, under story and cones, to minimize any look of disturbance.  It was far removed from the fire pit, and he hoped would remain undisturbed for another 150 years, if not longer.  He patted Charlie on her side.  "How does that look girl?"

He walked due west for twenty-seven paces over to a tree and took out his pocketknife.  As he began to carve his initials under the 'W E', he turned his head to look over his shoulder and there was Willie.  Willie stopped at the edge of the opening, stroked Maggie's mane, looked at Mark and tipped his hat.  As he turned and led Maggie into the trees, he vanished for the last time.