For Blood and Gold
A story about the depths of desperation during the California Gold Rush in 1849.
For added atmosphere, listen to the Spotify playlist that I’ve put together for the story here.
I was riding home after a long day’s work by the gorge. I had yet to find any gold that week. Although the clock was about seven, the sun still shone brightly. My mare’s black fur was hot against my legs.
About halfway home, as I was approaching the foot of a rocky hill, I heard voices — a heated argument between two men. I stopped and listened. The argument escalated into violent shouts and subsided just as quickly.
I rode up the hill and saw the place of disturbance about a hundred meters ahead of me. A figure lay on the ground of a small camp, consisting of two small tents and campfire. There was no sign of a possible perpetrator as far as I could see. I spurted to the camp and got off my horse. An American in his forties with gaunt features lay on the ground, holding his bleeding abdomen with his right hand.
“Sir, are you alright?” I asked.
“Hey there! It’s not as bad as it looks,” he replied with a Southern accent and removed his hand, reveling a sharp yet superficial laceration. “I’ll be fine,” he grunted.
“Name’s Carlo Renzatto. Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Mark Harvey. I take it you’re a gold hunter?”
“That’s right. Are you? I don’t recognize you from around here.”
“I am, but not here in Sierra Nevada,” he said as he started to rustle around a leather bag and found some bandages. “I’ve come from Mariposa in search of a treasure, located not far away. A vaquero helped me get here, but he stole my map and attacked me just now. I’m telling you, that man should hang for assaulting gold hunters such as us! But I ain’t fit to go after him. Do you think you can get him back for me?”
“Me? Sorry sir, but I’m no bounty hunter.”
“Come on, the man’s only armed with a knife, while I see that you have a gun and some rope. That should be enough to tie him down.”
I scratched my head. “I don’t know. What’s in it for me?”
“Well… How about we share the treasure? You’ll get half of it.”
“Really? You’d do that?”
“Sure thing!” Mark said with a smile. “He went off towards those rocks,” he pointed at a formation of rocks not too far away.
“Guess I better hurry.”
“That’s the spirit!” Mark said and started to patch himself up. “One more thing, you don’t happen to have some water left?”
“I do,” I said and handed him my leather casket. He took a swig.
“Thanks, now get going!”
With both reluctance and eagerness I got up on my horse and rode towards the rocks, located of the beaten path. The dust whirled up from under the hooves of my mare. A warm wind whistled past and rustled her brown mane. I found it hard to believe that I was after a fugitive. The promise of a treasure could be worth months, if not a whole year, of hard work. As I came closer to the rocks I placed a hand on my gun, just to be sure. I had only used it once before.
The assortment of rocks before me were few; about six of them. The vaquero should be hiding there. Was he expecting me? I got of my horse by a black and weathered tree, not wanting make myself known as I approached. Long past the rocks the land was barren except for some bushes. Before the mountains in the distance was a small settlement. I walked quickly from the tree to a large rock, pressed myself against it and checked my gun. Apart from a bird cawing in the distance, my racing heart was all I heard.
I peeked out from the rock but didn’t see anyone, wondering if he had seen me. I carefully walked around the rounded edges of the rock, hid by the long shadow that it cast. I took a few steps to another, smaller rock. Just as I turned its corner I heard a faint panting coming from an oval stone baking in the sun. It had to be him.
I crouched down and walked slowly towards him. The perpetrator sat on the far side of the round stone, his back towards me. He knelt down and held his left, bleeding arm with his other hand. By his left hip hung a large hunting knife with a bloodied blade. He was on the lookout for danger, yet seemed to be unaware of my presence. I took a deep breath and sneaked up behind him. I put the pipe of my gun to the back of his head. He froze.
“Reach for your knife and I’ll take your life, amico,” I said.
“Mark sent you, right?” he asked with a deep voice that wavered with nervousness.
“Raise your hands.”
“Raise your hands!”
“He’ll kill me, you know. He’ll probably kill you too”.
He reached for the knife, but before he could unsheathe it I struck him with the grip of my gun. He fell to the ground. I took his knife and hurled it away. He writhed in the sand, groaning.
I bound his hands and feet with my rope and turned him on his back to get a look at him. It was hard to make out his complexion because of the sand and his hair covering his face. He had an unkempt beard but looked quite young, not older than 30. I called on my mare, placed him on her and climbed the saddle.
“Please, sir. Don’t do this. I ain’t done a thing,” I heard from him.
“Your excuses won’t help you.”
“I don’t know what he told you, but I went here with him to help him find a treasure. He told me that he stole it from a landowner in Mariposa. We had just set up camp and were about to go look for it when he attacked me!”
“He practically said the same thing, except that you attacked him.”
“No! All I did was to ask for a bigger cut of the treasure. I have five children and a wife to provide for!”
“I think that a young vaquero should be able to defend himself against a simple gold hunter.”
“Yes, but Mark surprised me! He took my gun and attacked me as I was sleeping!”
He almost seemed sincere. Either he was a good liar or just desperate. We were halfway to their camp.
“That’s quite the story. But what’s a vaquero doing so far away from home?”
“I used to be one, but then the war came. I couldn’t risk leaving my family without a father, so I set out to find gold in California instead.”
“You gotta believe me! He wants the treasure for himself. He wants it all!”
I was eager to get this over with and rode faster.
Up on the hill, Mark waved to me. I arrived with the same eagerness and reluctance that I had left with not long ago.
“Would you look at that!” Mark said with gleaming eyes.
I took the man down from the horse.
“Let me go!” he shouted.
“Here he is, sir,” I said.
“That’s just swell, mister! Thanks a bunch!”
Mark walked up to the man, who was on his knees, still tied up. Mark hunched down.
“Well, well, Ventura. I was afraid I’d lost you,” Mark said with a grin. “And here I thought you Mexican buckaroos could defend yourselves!”
Ventura spat in Mark’s face. Mark closed his eyes as he wiped bloodied saliva out of his right eye. His smile turned into a malevolent grin.
“You’re gonna get it now, partner.”
As I realized what played out before me I stood transfixed. Mark dragged a wailing Winston by the scalp to where the hill came to a steep end, a ravine below. Mark threw him on the ground, close to the edge.
“Fuck you, Mark! You backstabbing piece of shit!”
Mark took the gun from his holster. Ventura tried to squirm out of the rope I tied. He turned to me and screamed:
“Are you just gonna stand there?! You just gonna stand–”
A shot rang out and echoed through the vast desert. Winston’s body jerked and Mark kicked him down the ravine.
“Sorry about that. I don’t do to well with company. I’m more of a lone-wolf kinda guy, you know?”
I sprinted towards him and he raised his gun. I hit him with a right hook over the jaw. Mark stumbled and dropped his gun, which singled down the hill. He threw himself at me, toppling the both of us. Lying down, I tried to kick him as he crawled towards me. I picked up a small rock on the ground and hit him. It made a dent in his forehead.
“You fuck!” he yelled.
In a rage, he straddled over me, his hands clasping my throat.
“You just had to be the hero, didn’t you?” he hissed and bared his teeth, red with blood.
I tried to pry him away, but I felt my strength waning with each passing second. My vision started to go black, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the campfire where a pot of coffee was boiling. It was just within my reach, so I grabbed the handle and swung the scorching content over him. As the coffee sizzled his face, Mark let out a cry of pain and put his hands to his steaming face. He fell down on the ground and screamed in agony. I got up, pulled out my gun and walked towards him. He started to wriggle away in the opposite direction. His face was blistering red. He dragged himself backwards until he came to the edge of the hill.
“Shit! Please, Carlo, I’m sorry!”
I pressed the gun to his temple. He shut his eyelids and held his breath. I cocked my gun and pressed it even harder to his head.
“Please…” he whimpered.
I too closed my eyes as I my finger squeezed the trigger. The crackle and recoil from the gun sent a shock through my being. When I opened my eyes, I saw his lifeless body before me and my hands red with blood. I took a moment to catch my breath before I hurried down the steep ravine to where Ventura lay. He was lying in an awkward position on the rocky ground. I had forgotten to take the map from him.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered as I stripped him of it.
I climbed up the ravine with some difficulty and tried to decipher where the map would lead me. The parchment was worn and the ink faded; however, the map showed an X just by a drawing of a peculiar tree. It was the dead tree which I had passed before. I scurried through Mark’s and Ventura’s tents, where I found a shovel. I thought about burying their bodies, but the coyotes would come to feed of them in a matter of minutes, so I decided to leave them be.
I rode back to the tree and began to dig. As I dug several holes the sun began to set, chilling the otherwise warm air. After digging a fifth pit I hit something made out of wood. It had to be the treasure. I started to dig with my hands, found a handle and pulled the chest up from the hole. It was lighter than I had imagined. With a thrust of the shovel I broke the padlock sealing the lid. Trembling, I got down on my knees.
This was it. A great big treasure. A reward for the days of mining, digging, and searching. A reward for the voyage from Italy to the land of the Free.
I opened it.
Inside, there was nothing. Nothing. I put my hands down the chest, rummaging through it like the gold was there but simply invisible. There were only grains of sand inside. I let out a wail, slamming the lid over and over again. As I knelt there in despair, the sky seemingly felt for me and started to weep.
What happened to the promise of riches? The land of opportunities? It had all been washed away. All but the blood on my hands. I tore the damned map to pieces.
Screeching coyotes broke the silence of night. A cold wind blew and lingered, even as I got on my horse and headed home. I thought it was the ghost of Mark and Ventura. I guess I should’ve been glad to have survived the encounter, but things would’ve been different if I had dipped my hands in gold instead of blood. It wasn’t was supposed to end this way. I wondered what my wife would say.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed the story, please click on the heart symbol to recommend it.
Sincerely, Oscar Hjelmstedt.