By dusk the falling snow was thick, accumulating on the ground, the high stone ridges, the windswept conifers--everywhere except on the dead man who lay just below the narrow pass that led into Texas Gulch. Just enough warmth remained in his body to slowly melt the flakes that struck him.
A boy of twelve, Daniel Chase, stood rooted in the snow, staring down at this most unexpected find. He'd been headed home to the mining camp, humming to himself, his idle mind wandering. He'd almost fallen over the corpse.
The dead man was gray-haired, lightly bearded, maybe fifty years old. He looked very peaceful lying there on his back in the snow, as if he'd died swiftly and easily. But to the boy that serene appearance seemed ghastly.
Over in Texas Gulch, a dog barked. A shifting wind brought the scent of woodsmoke to Daniel's nose. A sudden desire to be indoors and away from snow, cold wind, and dead men overwhelmed the boy. Besides, somebody grownup needed to be told about this. Daniel shivered and pulled his coat tightly around him. Then he cut a wide circle around the body and hurried along the trail and through the pass.
He trotted down the long slope toward the brown, smoke-belching, California mining camp that was home to him and a small but unusually diverse population of mining camp dwellers. The diversity was lost on the boy, who had no other experience of mining camps by which to make comparison. He did know, however, that Texas Gulch was thought to be the highest-elevated, most remote mining camp in all of California, because Crain Brown, one of the miners and residents, had told him so.
The dog Daniel had heard barking appeared. It was Arianna Winkle's dog, not a popular creature in the camp because it barked at night. Daniel liked the dog, though. Its pretty, thirteen-year-old owner he liked a lot more.
"How are you, Enoch?" he said to the canine, pausing to scratch around its ears. "There's a dead man up at the pass, you know it? You ought to run up and smell him!"
As if to obey, the dog bounded toward the pass, a natural gate that was the only known entrance into the three-mile-wide, generally circular, basinlike valley in which Texas Gulch stood. That is, if a shapeless splatter of low, rugged log buildings, which from a distance looked like scabs on the flesh of the land, could accurately be said to stand.
Daniel headed for a cabin at the northern side of the camp. Smoke was belching out its chimney into the gray sky. A fairly big cabin as mining camp cabins go, it was dwarfed, however, by another that stood in the middle of the camp, a virtual dormitory of a cabin built as a common dwelling for the original miners of this place. That had been a group from Pennsylvania who had wandered into the valley while trying to find a new route over the Sierras to the "diggings" on the other side. By accident, one of them struck color, and the group had wandered no farther. They had constructed this mining community, tried to name it Pittsburg Hill, but for reasons no one remembered, the name that actually stuck to the place was Dutch Camp.
The color hadn't lasted long and the original miners moved on. The place once called Dutch Camp was now called Texas Gulch by its newer and much smaller population of eighteen people, a population that was expected to grow swiftly come spring, when the snows were gone and word got out--as it was already beginning to do--that new gold had been found. There was still wealth to be made in the former Dutch Camp, and it was to assure that they held claim on the best of it when the gold season began again that the current Texas Gulch residents had opted to lay in food and provisions, cut massive supplies of firewood, and brave out the high Sierra winter rather than escape for the season to the warmer foothills below.
Daniel shoved the door open and walked in, bringing snow and wind with him, evoking howls of protest from four miners who were gathered around a table, playing cards. A pleasant fire roared in a big stone fireplace at one end of the cabin, though more than half the heat was going up the chimney with the smoke.
"There's a dead man up in the pass," Daniel announced from the open doorway.
"Close that door!" Sam Underhill bellowed.
Daniel obeyed. "There's a dead man up in the pass," he repeated.
"Fool boy!" one of the others, a surly man named Herbert Colfax, older than the other three miners, mumbled beneath his breath as he closed the lid on an ivory snuffbox he'd been using just as Daniel opened the door. "That wind almost blew away my snuff."
"I said that there's a dead man up in the pass," Daniel repeated yet again, a little louder.
"Oh, I'm sure there is," Colfax replied. "And what was it you said you saw back in the valley last week? A tiger, I think? And let's see ... what work did you tell me your late father was in, before he took to mining? Vice president of the United States, you said. Yep, that was it. So I have every reason to believe you when you say there's a dead man in the pass." He winked across the table at Hiram Linfoot, another of the card players. "I'll bet it was that tiger what got the poor devil, you reckon, Hiram?"
Hiram and Ben Dillow, the fourth card player, laughed. Sam Underhill didn't.
"Daniel, this is just one of your tales, ain't it?" asked Underhill, a sandy-haired man who looked younger than his thirty-five years and was considered quite handsome by the ladies. He'd been quite proud of his looks in more youthful days, but he didn't dwell much on such things now that he was a little older.
"No," Daniel said. "There's really a dead man."
"Let's play cards," Colfax grumbled.
"Just hold on, Herbert," Sam said. "Daniel, you really do mean what you say?"
"Yes! I swear. How many times I got to say it?"
"The boy lies every time he talks, Sam," Colfax said. "He'll make a congressman before you know it. Maybe president."
"I think maybe he's telling the truth," Sam said.
"He'll get you up there, then laugh at you for having believed him," said Dillow, Sam's mining partner and fellow resident of this cabin.
"I'm not lying," Daniel said. "There's a man lying dead in the snow. It melts when it hits him."
Sam thought about that. "Then maybe that man's not dead yet." He laid down the cards and stood. "Will you show me the man, Daniel?"
"Underhill, are you really going out there?" Colfax asked.
"Yep. Why don't you come with me?"
"Think I'll stay."
"Come on, Herbert. In fact, all of you come. If there's really a man hurt or dead up there, I'll need help getting him down here. We can't just assume Daniel's telling a story."
"There's no dead man. The boy's a liar."
Daniel was almost in tears. "I'm not! I'm not! This time it's the truth!"
"It better be, Daniel," Sam said. "Come on, men. Just in case there's really somebody needing help."
Sam took his heavy bearskin coat from a wall peg, put it on, and slipped his slouch hat into place atop the thick and sandy hair of his head. He pulled a scarf-sized scrap of cloth out of his coat pocket and tied the hat in place, pulling the sides of the brim down like flaps over his ears. The other card players didn't budge.
Perturbed, Sam said, "Lead on, Daniel. You and me will go look even if nobody else will. Ben, I'm surprised that you, at least, won't come with me."
Dillow sighed and stood. "What the devil," he said, and went for his own coat and hat.
Hiram Linfoot got up and readied himself as well.
Colfax, outnumbered and facing the prospect of nothing to play but solitaire, stood with a sigh. "Hang and bury you, Sam Underhill. Hang and bury all of you. I'll come too, if for no more reason than to laugh when the little liar shows you for the fools you are."
Less than an hour later, Colfax was gazing at the corpse he'd just helped haul in, scratching his beard, and trying hard to catch his breath. Being several years older than most of the other prospectors, he tired easily. Despite his gasping, he continued to pace back and forth swiftly, unusually wrought up.
Laid out, on the puncheon floor of the Underhill-Dillow cabin, the dead man looked even more placid than he had out in the weather. And more gray. His body had grown colder since Daniel had first seen him.
Dillow, whose experience raising, tending, and doctoring cattle and horses back in Kentucky as a very young man made him the closest thing the mining camp had to a physician, was examining the dead man closely, opening the shirt and studying the chest, lifting the eyelids and staring at the marbled eyes, peering inside the mouth and feeling around the back of the neck. Sam Underhill didn't know just what Dillow was looking for and wasn't sure that Dillow did, either.
"What do you reckon, Ben?" Sam asked.
Dillow reared bask on his haunches and shook his head. "Don't know. I see no signs of violence. He ain't been shot or stabbed, and there's no unusual bruises to make me think he was beat."
"Natural death, then?"
"Believe so. Probably his heart gave out on him. I knew a man back when I was a boy who died climbing up a steep hill in the snow. It strains the heart something fierce."
"Why do you reckon he was coming here at this time of year, with the snows setting in?" asked Linfoot.
"Maybe he wasn't coming here," Dillow said. "Maybe he was just passing by."
Colfax, pacing back and forth very fast, snorted. "This ain't the kind of place a man passes by. We ain't located in the heart of Boston, you know."
Dillow eyed Colfax. "Why are you so nervous? Why are you pacing that way? You need to go out and drain your bladder or something?"
Sam Underhill said, "Ben, we've got a lady present." This was true; the bringing in of a dead stranger had drawn several other Texas Gulch residents to the Underhill-Dillow cabin, among them the lovely Marica Bolton, whom Ben Dillow liked quite well but was always managing to offend. It was a rarity for a mining camp to have any females--any of of the unsullied variety, anyway--but Texas Gulch had five, all of them of good repute. Sam continued, "All we'll be able to do for this man is give him a decent burial, and if we can, determine who he is and where he's from so we can notify his people."
"You search him, Sam," Dillow said, standing. "You're the man of the law here."
"That was back in Texas," Sam said. Indeed, back in the town of Underhill, founded by and named for Sam's famous father, Bushrod Underhill, the unwilling inheritor of the late Davy Crockett's mantle of peerless American frontiersman, Sam had been town marshal before he joined the rush to California. "I don't suppose we have any real law in Texas Gulch."
"We don't have any real doctor, either, but I still have to do the job. Now do yours."
Given Marica Bolton's presence, Sam didn't fully undress the corpse. He did conduct a search of the dead man's clothes, but found no identification upon him. In the pockets he found a comb, a folding knife, a tinderbox, a matchblock, a snuff box, and a few scraps of paper with meaningless personal notes on them ... but no name, nothing to indicate from whence this man had come, or why.
"Well, that's that," Sam said. "Unless somebody comes along asking after him and can identify him before he rots, we're not going to know a thing about him."
"Just a prospector looking for a new strike and a new dream, probably," said Kish Fleenor, a Texas Gulch prospector with a melancholy air, rather high voice, and philosophical bent. He wrote poetry, which he thought was a secret, though in fact everyone knew it. Colfax in particular despised him, but then, Colfax tended to despise everyone in varying measure.
Sam examined the dead man's hands. "No calluses on the hands. Soft. If he was a prospector, he hadn't gotten started yet."
"Look at the ring he's wearing," Marica said. She was the daughter of Art Bolton, a widower and Texas Gulch prospector who stood at her side. About twenty years old and quite pretty, Marica was the most idolized woman in Texas Gulch. The other females, none of whom were present at the moment, were Herbert Colfax's wife, America, and their plump and plain daughter, Letitia, whom everyone felt sorry for because she'd inherited her mother's unfortunate looks and her father's sour disposition, and the young widow Leora Winkle--whose husband had suffered a fit, fallen into a stream he was panning, and drowned the prior summer. Last and youngest of all was Arianna, Leora's thirteen-year-old daughter and the object of young Daniel Chase's undying affection.
Sam lifted the dead man's left hand and examined the ring. It was a plain, inexpensive band, widened at one point with a meaningless decorative scribble on it. Sam slipped it off and looked inside it, hoping to see a name inscribed, but there was none.
He held out the ring to Marica. "I suppose there's nothing wrong with you taking it, if you want."
She shook her head. "I'd as soon not wear a dead man's ring."
"I'd like it," Daniel Chase quickly said.
Sam handed Daniel the ring. "Here. Keep it in memory of our dead and unknown friend."
The boy slipped it on his ring finger, found it too loose, and twisted it onto his middle finger instead.
"It's sad that a man dies and is forgotten so thoroughly," said Kish Fleenor.
"It is," Sam agreed.
"Like a flower cut down in mid-blossom," Fleenor went on. "A gourd plucked too early from the vine."
"Bosh! There's men who die in the camps every day and are forgotten," said Colfax, speaking fast and restless. He was still pacing and nervous. "No reason to gush over this one. The way I figure it, he'd probably have come in and found the strike that should have gone to me. Good riddance to unwanted competition, I say. 'A gourd plucked too early from the vine.' Have mercy!"
"Colfax," Dillow said, "is talking out your backside a trick you had to teach yourself, or does it just run in your family as a gift of nature?"
"Ben, dang it," Sam scolded, "remember the lady!"
"Blast!" Colfax boomed abruptly and rather dramatically, stopping his pacing and patting about on his torso. "I've lost my pocket watch! I dropped it up there where the dead man was, I'll wager. Of all the bad luck!"
"If you dropped it up there, you may not find it until springtime," Sam said.
"Oh, I'll find it. I'll go right now and get it."
"I'll go with you," Bolton said. "It's dark now, and we'll need torches."
"Don't need any help, thank you," Colfax said sharply. He made his exit with a grand flurry and stomped off through the snow.
"What's the matter with that old goat?" Dillow asked. "He's acting even more peculiar than usual."
"I know," Sam said. "He was acting odd even when we found this body. He stayed off by himself, in the dark."
"Yeah. I noticed that."
"When will we bury this fellow, Sam?" Art Bolton asked.
"In the morning," Sam replied. "In the meantime, we'll lay him in my woodshed. It'll be good and cold there, so he'll keep."
Copyright © 1999 by Cameron Judd.