A journal of narrative writing.
Page 5

Ingram rubbed his brow. He needed to sleep, to sleep, but all he could think about was keeping that preacher away from him while he panned, and how in the morning he might see in the wet gravel the buttery gleam of gold, and how the preacher might notice him lean over it and limp toward him to see, and how he’d have to close his fingers over the gold because the sight of it was enough to kindle a man’s greed, and his gold, his whole claim, none of it would be safe.

The thought of the gold was enough to make Ingram open his eyes and search out the hump of the blanket by the fire, and when he turned away he forced himself to think of other things. The cabin he would build for winter, the provisions he’d have to buy. He’d pay old Ezra at the trading post to carry it all out here on his mules, then he’d work until the creek froze, and if there were gold enough—and goddammit, why shouldn’t there be?—he’d buy all the equipment Ezra could have shipped up the river and hire the men who’d come out here and found nothing and, if luck were with him, in a year or two he’d have made his fortune. He’d take a ship back down south and set himself up with a house and a woman who’d have his children, and this time they wouldn’t fall sick, and they wouldn’t die, and there’d be no more rough work for him, no more digging monstrous holes from which banks and exchanges would rise up in the cities of the West. He’d had enough of that. No man would stand on the edge of a workpit in his wool coat and muffler with an umbrella held up against the rain and promise the foreman a bonus if the men worked faster, no matter that they were up to their knees in mud and so cold and weak from slogging through it that, by the end of the day, they couldn’t climb the ladder out but had to be hauled up with ropes under their arms, their hands still curled around the handles of their shovels until the foreman pried them loose.

How good it felt to touch the rawness of his anger now that he’d bested them all by coming north, and would best them again by returning a rich man. His luck had turned, as it surely had to. He sensed it in the silvery lift of the leaves, and the cool rub of the breeze over his face.

He turned onto his side and stared toward the fire.

The blanket lay flat. The preacher was gone.

One hand went to the barrel of his gun. He was on his knees and half out of his tent, his mouth open and his breath coming fast, before he saw him: a shadow against the bright trunks of the birches, hat tilted back and feet set wide, pissing against a tree while his dog sniffed the ground close by. He buttoned his fly, and when he turned Ingram ducked back. For a moment the preacher stood with his head lifted and his face gaunt against the dark halo of his hat, listening, though there was nothing to listen to except the wash of the wind, and then he stared all about him, toward the hillside, toward the creek and the hills beyond, toward the tent. The preacher must not have seen Ingram watching for he leaned on his stick and limped away with the dog at his heels.

Ingram was fast. He ran in a crouch toward the scarred birch and plunged his hand into the hole between its roots. Nothing but the tickle of loose earth and fine roots. He forced his hand in farther and dread welled up in his chest. Then—the relief so strong it stung—his fingertips touched the soft leather of the bag. It wasn’t enough to gather the bag into his hand and feel the weight inside. He had to stand there in the strange light of a morning not yet begun and nudge those unearthly lumps of metal across the hollow of his hand. Only then could he bring himself to tip them back and stuff the bag into his pocket.

When he looked up he saw the preacher. He’d stopped amongst the trees. The top of his face was hidden in the shadow of his hat, his mouth a crack across the gray of his beard. “Got yousself a hidey hole?” he called, then let out a laugh.

Ingram had laid his gun on the ground, and it lay there still. He bent for it without taking his eyes off him. “You’re well enough to be on your way.”

“Reckon so,” and the preacher limped toward him. “Reckon you’ve been right generous too.” He smiled and his teeth showed like tent pegs hammered in askew.

Ingram raised the gun so the barrel pointed at the preacher’s belly. His hands felt slick, his grip uncertain. “What kinda preacher are you, anyways?”

The preacher touched his chest with the flat of his hand. “Lord knows, I come between men and their greed,” but he laughed and his mouth twisted, and when Ingram looked at the preacher’s hand again, it gave a curious flick and a flash of light shot from it.

It hit him in the chest. A knife. Ingram fingered the handle sticking out from his shirt as though he couldn’t believe it was real, and by the time he remembered his gun it was gone, fallen away amongst the leaves. He glanced up and it took an effort because his head was heavy, and there was the preacher approaching with his dog with its great furry head and wet eyes. Ingram wanted to say something except the air had turned thin and he couldn’t catch his breath, couldn’t stand straight either. He reached out for the preacher but he had stopped a few feet away with his foot on the barrel of the gun, and he watched Ingram from across the immensity between them. Soon Ingram’s knees gave way and he folded in on himself and fell to the ground.

The reek of decay was everywhere. Ingram stared into the sway of green leaves high above, felt the preacher’s hand in his pocket and the sudden loss of warmth as the drawstring bag was plucked away. Then a strange, sweet heaviness filled him and he watched the mosquitoes circle and twitch, circle and twitch, until he could watch no more.