This is a world whose history is written in blood. Blood drenches the black dried scabs of the rocks, the rusty desert sands and the distant crimson mountains bathed in the dying light of the setting sun. It is the blood that has drained from conquistadores, Apaches, Mexicans, Americans, leaving their empty bodies to dry out in the unforgiving sun. Not for the first time, I wonder what the hell I’m doing here on this fool’s errand.
I am camped on the edge of an eroded bluff of black volcanic rock. The only sounds are the quiet chomping of my tethered horse eating the nearby clumps of grass sprouting from cracks in the rock and the sizzle of the skinned jackrabbit on the stick over the crackling fire in front of me. The sky above is the deepest black I have ever seen and the stars so bright and close I feel I could reach out and pluck them.
I stare over my fire to the west, across the desert plain I crossed today, at the barely discernable black outline of the mountains where I camped last night. The tiny flickering campfire out on the plain is the only light. Every night for the past five days I have seen this fire as darkness falls. There is probably a man sitting by it looking up at the light of my fire. Who is he? Perhaps he is simply a traveler, taking the same route as I, but the loneliness of this place makes me think not. What his purpose is, I cannot guess. All I know is that every evening his campfire is a little closer.
I chose this place to camp because these low hills command a view of the way I have come, because there are some stunted trees for shelter should the clouds I saw building at twilight turn into a storm, and because there is a nearby spring for fresh water. It’s a good spot, but it’s not the land I have left.
Three months ago, on my sixteenth birthday, I was leaning on the rail of the schooner Robert Boswell, watching porpoises leap around us as we tacked across the Strait of Georgia toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific Ocean. My world then was blue—the dark blue of the water below, the pale blue of the sky above and blue-gray of the mountains at my back. I have not seen blue since I stepped off the ship in San Diego and launched myself into this land of rusty brown, burnt ocher and blood. The eternal snow on the peaks of the mountains back home is merely the memory of a dream.
My thoughts drift back to the modest parlor of the stopping house in Yale that my parents built in 1859 with gold my father had clawed from the Fraser River. I was born two years later, by which time business was booming as thousands of hopeful miners flooded through Yale on their way to the goldfields of the Cariboo, nursing their dreams of untold wealth.
I remember my mother telling me, “Your father found gold in the Fraser River, but we made a lot more money from the fools going to look for gold in the Cariboo.”
My father came up from California to look for gold in the District of New Caledonia in May of ’58. By the time New Caledonia became British Columbia later that year, he had staked and was working three good claims near Yale. Before a year was out, he had sold them, met and married my mother and bought the lot where our stopping house was to stand. But my father was not a man to let the grass grow beneath his feet. By the time British Columbia became the sixth province of Canada in 1871, he had been gone for four years.
I don’t think my mother even resented my father leaving. I suspect she had known since they first laid eyes on each other that he would move on one day. He had what my mother called an impatient soul.
“Some folks just can’t settle down in one place,” she used to say. “They aren’t made that way. With people like that you’ve got two choices: give up everything and accompany them, or accept that one day they’ll be gone and enjoy the time that you are in the same place with them.
“Your father gave me two very precious things when he left me the stopping house: financial security and independence. Both of them are great rarities for women, and I wasn’t about to give them up easily. And then there was you. I knew you’d leave one day too. I saw your father’s restless spirit in your eyes the day you were born, but even a rambler needs roots and a strong foundation. I stayed and ran the stopping house to give you that.”
On the last day before I left, my mother and I stood on opposite sides of the polished oak table in the parlor. She looked sad but not angry or tearful.
“Well, James, if you’re heart-set on going, all I can do is wish you luck and give you this.” She handed me a tin box that I knew well. I set it on the table, undid the latch and lifted the lid. Inside, Dad’s Colt Pocket revolver lay nestled in a bed of worn red felt. Beside it was a powder horn, a bullet mold, a box of percussion caps and a collection of lead bullets. It’s an old gun; you have to load each of the six chambers individually with powder, shot and percussion cap; but my father always said that was no disadvantage over the new fancy revolvers that took the ready-made cartridges.
“A handgun’s only good for shooting at something closer than a hundred feet away,” he used to say. “If you’re that close to a man and you need more than one or two shots, you’re probably already dead.”
I practiced with the revolver until I became a pretty good shot, and I feel comfortable knowing that it’s lying with my saddlebags across the fire from me. “Won’t you need it once I’m gone?” I asked my mother when she gave me the gun.
“No use for a gun here now,” she said with a smile. “This is 1877. When your father first came up here, it was a different matter. There were a lot of rough characters coming through then and not much law to control them, but all that’s changed. We’ve got laws and government now. A lady doesn’t have need of a handgun here, but you may where you’re going.”
“I have to go and find out what happened to Dad,” I said. “I always said I would as soon as I was old enough and able. I’ll be sixteen in three days and I’ve got some money saved, so there’s no point in waiting.”
Mother nodded slowly. “When you make up your mind, nothing changes it. You’re stubborn, just like him. He kept his thoughts close to himself, but once his mind was made up, God Almighty himself couldn’t change it. I know I can’t stop you going but, remember, you may not find him. He told me he was going to Mexico, but Mexico’s a big place. Besides, he may not wish to be found or,” she hesitated, “something may have happened to him.”
“That’s true, but somewhere down there, someone knows where he is or what happened to him, and I aim to find that out.”
“Even if you find him,” mother said thoughtfully, “he may not be what you expect. You were only six years old when he left, and he’ll be forty-five by now. What do you remember about him?”
“I can see him like it was yesterday, not tall but strong. He could lift me like I was a feather. His hair was dark, but I was always fascinated by how red it was at the ends, especially his mustache where it dropped down the sides of his mouth. When I was little, I always thought he grew that mustache to try and pull down the edges of the smile he always wore.
“I remember him teaching me Spanish and telling me stories. He told me about the vaqueros and Spanish grandees in Mexico, the wild Apache Indians and cowboys in Arizona and New Mexico, and the gold prospectors and gamblers in California. I promised myself that I would go and see these places for myself one day.”
“He was a good storyteller,” mother said wistfully. “But there was a lot about his life before I met him that he never did tell, and God knows I asked often enough. For all his talk and tales, he was a secretive man, never wanted anyone to really know him. I wondered sometimes if he had something dark in his past that he was running from. He used to have nightmares, you know. I’d wake to find him sitting in the bed beside me, bathed in sweat, his eyes wide and staring as if the room was full of ghosts. I used to ask what he saw in the night, but he never told me. Always passed it off as something he ate for supper that disagreed with him.”
“I didn’t know.”
“No reason for you to know. Mostly they were in the years after I first met him. They eased off after we got the stopping house set up and running, but they came back in the months before he left. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there was more to your father than the stories he told. You might be disappointed when you meet him.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Mother went on. “I’m not trying to talk you out of going. I know you’ve got his obsessions, and nothing I can say will change that. I just want you to go down there with your eyes open, because, even if all his stories were true, things have changed. It’s not the world he knew down there twenty years ago. There are cattlemen, cowboys and gunfighters moving in there now. Civilization’s creeping in, but it’s a slow, violent process.”
“But I have to try,” I repeated.
“I know, and I’ve tried to give you the best tools I can. You’re a fair shot with that revolver, you can at least stay on the back of a horse, and I’ve encouraged you to keep up with the Spanish he taught you. I also hope I’ve given you the sense to know when to stand and fight and when to run. So I guess all that’s left is to wish you luck.”
We embraced, and the next morning at daybreak I was gone to New Westminster to catch the Robert Boswell.
So I am down here in the desert to search for a father I have not seen in ten years, but my quest is not as futile as it may seem, or as my mother thinks. I have a clue, a starting point that she gave me and yet knows nothing of.
As soon as Mother thought I was old enough, she began teaching me how to use father’s revolver. I treasured it and spent long hours practicing loading, shooting and cleaning it. One day, after I had been in the woods at target practice, I was cleaning the gun in my room when I dropped the box, and the felt lining where the revolver nestled came loose. Beneath it was a letter my father had written before he left and which he had obviously intended me to find one day. I have it in my jacket pocket now, but I do not need to take it out. I know every word by heart.
I do not know when, or even if, you will find this, but I hope you will read it one day.
I also sincerely wish that you do not hold a grudge against me for leaving, but, as I hope you will one day understand, I had little choice.
I know how much you love sitting by my knee listening to the stories of my life in Mexico and California, and those occasions were a great joy to me also, but you must know that I changed the stories for the ears of a six-year-old boy and that there are things that I left out, things that not even your mother knows.
For all the stories I told, I said nothing of my family or early life. It is not that I am ashamed, but it was a difficult, complex time that I wanted to leave behind when I came north and met your mother. I planned to tell you everything one day when you’d be old enough to understand, and perhaps one day we may still have the opportunity to set the record straight, but the fact that you’re reading this letter suggests that I may not have that chance.
I do not wish to go into details in this letter, suffice it to say that in journeying north, I had managed to leave the past behind. Marrying your mother and your arrival are the two most important things I have done, and my time in Yale with you both was the happiest of my life.
Unfortunately, I was mistaken in thinking that it is possible to escape one’s past; you take it with you wherever you go. Things have occurred recently that make my departure, if I wish to protect your mother and you, essential.
I have told your mother nothing of all this as I am certain she would insist on trying to help me and that is not possible. She believes that I am moving on in response to my restless soul, and I would ask that you not disabuse her of this idea.
I will journey to Don Alfonso Ramirez’s hacienda outside Casas Grandes in Chihuahua State in Mexico, and there attempt to resolve these difficulties. If I am successful, I shall return to you swiftly. If I have not come back, it is because I continue to try or have perished in the attempt.
I do not relish leaving, but you and your mother are well provided for. She is a strong and resourceful woman, and you show signs already of growing into an intelligent and quick-witted boy. I take comfort from knowing that the pair of you will prosper. Perhaps one day, when you are grown up, we shall meet and I can tell you the full story.
Grow strong and look after your mother.
Believe that I always loved and cared for you and your mother and that I always will.
I never blamed my father for leaving, and I never did tell my mother about the letter. It was a secret between my father and me, and the more I read the letter, the more I began to believe that he had written it to give me clues that would start me on a journey to discover the story that, for some reason, he couldn’t tell me. I swore to myself that, as soon as I was able, I would seek out my father and learn the truth. I would start by finding Don Alfonso Ramirez at Casas Grandes in Chihuahua.
One year ago, I sent a letter to Señor Ramirez, but I received no reply. I don’t know what this means; the letter may have gotten lost or Señor Ramirez may have moved away or died. Two months ago, I sent a second letter outlining my plans to come down. Again I received no reply, but who knows? Perhaps someone read the letter and awaits my arrival. One way or another, I intend to follow the trail that my father left.
In San Diego I purchased my pony and tack from a Mexican who had ridden her all the way from Texas and was about to take passage down the coast to Acapulco. I suspect I paid above the going rate for her. She is not a pretty animal, being a dirty dun color and small, but she is good-natured, hardy and used to the desert. And she and I have become friends. She is my only companion and I talk to her. I tell stories of life in Yale and of my father and why I am here. Her name is Alita, after a girl who fought in the battles that made Mexico free from Spain.
I bartered my carpetbag for a bedroll that straps behind Alita’s saddle and bought a pair of saddlebags, a large water canteen and a flint to start fires. I also acquired clothes more suited to desert travel than the ones I brought with me—a wide-brimmed hat, loose shirt and pants, and a woolen jacket and extra blanket, as it is December and the nights on the trail can be bitter.
For food I took flour—with which I have learned to make tortillas, a kind of flatbread that people here eat with everything—dried beans, meat and coffee. I have had no trouble replenishing these basic commodities as I travel. Whenever I can, I also carry a bag of grain for Alita, but she is very good at foraging when we stop in the evenings.
In the weeks of my traveling east, I have toughened and discovered much. For the first days, Alita and I progressed at a steady walk. She became restless and I ached as if run over by a herd of stampeding cattle. Now I have learned to vary the pace, sometimes walking, sometimes trotting and sometimes cantering and resting often, and we are both much happier. Through watching and talking with travelers I meet on the trail, I have ascertained something of the habits of the creatures that live hereabouts, enough at any rate to snare some fresh meat on occasion. I am also getting better at reading the land, spotting the places where the trail is easiest and the gullies, arroyos they are called here, most likely to carry a stream for fresh water. And I have a book, which I read in spare moments and from which I am attempting to improve the Spanish that my father taught me.
After the first day or two inland from the coast, the land becomes rough and harsh. It is almost as if the earth is wrinkled like old skin into mountains and valleys that run north and south so that the trail is an endless repetition of crossing wide, dry plains and winding through rugged mountain passes. Rain comes in violent evening storms that can turn a dry arroyo into a raging river in minutes. All this is so different from the wet lushness of home.