The two men were dusty, faces browned by the summer sun, their muscles corded and lean. Hard work and sweat soiled their tattered clothes and their leather boots had worn thin. The sun, approaching the shadowless hour of midday, had turned hot and as the two men led their mules through a stand of ponderosa pines, ticks and chiggers waited in the trailside brush; gnats sought the moisture of their eyes and hungry deerflies buzzed the backs of their necks and arms, yet no matter how vigorously the men swatted, the flies were too quick.
The men had once been young and strong but they had searched the mountains for sapphires and gold for such a long time they weren't so young anymore. For a time they'd had a helper and his name was Joady, but after three years without a gold strike or that dreamed of vein of sapphires, Wayman told the young man to take a job of work as floor-sweep and keg-tender at the Iron Door Saloon. Joady was glad whenever his two old friends came to town, pleased to say hello and ask if their luck had changed. Today the weary and disheartened looks on their faces told him that nothing so good had happened.
"Levi! Wayman!" Joady hollered, standing tall and gangly, the saloon doors swinging behind him on squeaky hinges. "I didn't notice when you first came to town but I hear you had business at the assay office. Maybe I'd come back to work for you now."
Wayman and Levi had taken Joady in after his father died from a rattlesnake bite six years ago. Time had not diminished the young man's affection for his two old friends.
"You're doing just fine where you are," Wayman said. "Let them rich prospectors fill your pockets with tips. Working the mountains is feverishly hard and a mighty long gamble and the gamble ain't been overly kind to me and Levi."
"I was discouraged on account of no luck."
"Don't think on it," Wayman said. "Standing in your boots I'd done the same."
"I got myself worried, that's all . . . but maybe I'd come back."
"No, no, the assay office paid us scant little for our ore," Wayman insisted. "Hardly worth the effort to haul it. And we ain't laid eyes on any sapphires."
"Come in then and let me buy you both a beer," Joady said and gestured to the door.
"Now there's a fine idea. So get on now and show us the way inside."
The men tied off their mules and sat at the long wooden bar. On the wall hung the head of a grizzly, his beady eyes fixed in an unconscious gaze. Working men and prospectors were drinking and talking loud. One prospector claimed he'd found a gold nugget big as a chicken's egg. Another said a large grizzly had raided supplies from a lumberjack camp just across the Idaho border. Wayman's brow scrunched up as he listened.
Joady distracted him. "Could I order you supplies for next time?" he asked, pulling a pencil from behind his ear. "The stage comes twice a month now."
Wayman shrugged. "What we need is luck but I don't reckon luck has ever come to town on no stage."
Men sitting nearby laughed and laughter spread from one man to the next, and when the laughter quieted, Levi said, "You bought us beers Joady boy, that's all any man can ask. Day after tomorrow we'll be back in them mountains, in them dry canyons hoping that luck ain't forsaken us altogether."
"Remember how it was when you first took me in?"
Levi considered the question for a moment. "After a fashion I do, but things was better back then. There was reason to reckon favorably on a man's chances. We figured to make such a big strike that a third would be bigger than a half."
Men laughed again. Wayman rubbed his knuckles against his whiskery chin. "Do you remember when that big mountain cat came after the pack animals and mistook you for a two-legged donkey?"
Joady grinned. "I just about soiled my trousers when he charged out of that brush. Only Levi's deadly eye stopped him. I still remember the high stink of that dead cat."
"Sometimes I wonder if I remember or if I just remember Levi telling it. He's told that story fifty times to those who'd listen."
"I remember everything about them years," Joady said. "Sometimes I figure they was the best years of my life."
"You're too young to seen your best years," Levi said. "Wait till your chin whiskers go gray and you're stove in a bit."
"Let me come back. I got a feeling your luck will change."
"Don't think there's no charm in your offer, Joady, but you stay put," Wayman said. "Let's have us another beer. And maybe a round of whiskeys."
The next morning Joady walked with his two friends and when they finally reached the trailhead, Joady glanced at Wayman. "I got no work tomorrow. I could walk with you today and head back to town in the morning. Plus I brought something you like." Joady reached into his pocket for a square of chewing tobacco.
"Well then," Wayman said, "I reckon you'll walk with us."
Joady tossed the tobacco to Wayman and he bit off a chunk and passed it to Levi. Levi did the same and then put the tobacco in his pocket. Heavy clouds were building the southeast. Levi shaded his eyes. "Maybe we'll get a thundershower later today."
Joady swatted at a deerfly. "Rain is okay but I'd rather not see any hungry bears."
Levi spit. "In my younger days I once run across a grizzly that stood twelve feet and weighed no less than two mules. Fortunately, I was riding a fast horse."
Wayman looked at Joady. "There ain't so many grizzlies nowadays. Most of them been shot and skinned, except up in Canada, up in those Rocky Mountains."
"Could your rifle bring down a grizzly, Levi?" Joady wanted to know.
"The shot would have to be dead straight. A grizzly's skull's so thick, if a bullet strikes poorly it'll glance off. Then he'll kill you just for spite."
By late afternoon, the sun was not so hot and the trail began switch backing up a high finger-like ridge. Beyond the ridge was a broad meadow with a meandering creek but the water was running low except for pools where spring floods had cut deep. Wayman called ahead to Levi to water the mules. Levi waved his acknowledgement. The creases in his forehead were grimy with sweat and powdery dust. He pulled his mule's lead rope and started across the meadow to the creek. A blue jay lit in a pine and squawked.
"Why not camp here tonight." Wayman said. "The pass is a hard climb still and it wouldn't do for me to walk much longer. The mules can graze all night."
Levi nodded. "I lack the spunk myself and there's soreness in my feet. Don't reckon I'm fit for much more service."
"I'll gather up firewood," Joady offered and started across the meadow toward a dead tree.
Wayman unstrapped the heavy pack and let it slide off his mule. Levi removed his rifle from the canvas sheath tied to his pack. It was a big bore single shot. He aimed at an imaginary target in the distance. "Maybe was I to circle the meadow, I'd spot something for dinner," he said.
Wayman chuckled. "Go shoot us a fat turkey and I'll get to hobbling the mules."
As Levi headed up the trail, Joady was busy chopping up branches with a hand axe. Ten minutes later he returned with a bundle. "This piney kindling will make a good blaze," he said.
Wayman kicked at the dry weeds. "Yup . . . but first we need a firebreak."
The mules had moved upstream and were grazing on greener grass nearer the creek's edge. Wayman untied a short handled shovel from his pack and began a clearing for the fire, while Joady collected rocks and built a ring. Levi was working his way through the shadowed tree line.
"If you made a big strike, would you take me back?" Joady asked.
Wayman, satisfied with the firebreak he'd made, leaned on the shovel. "A big strike would make enough to go around even and square. We'd need plenty of help just to haul all that gold to town."
"Or maybe sacks full of blue-sparkly sapphires." Joady smiled and began chopping branches into fire-size lengths. The sun was just over the western peaks and high feathery clouds had turned orange, highlighted in amber and rose.
"Do you figure Levi will shoot something for dinner?" Joady asked.
"I'm inclined to doubt it. We're not lucky in gold or turkeys. And I don't see Levi is light-footed enough to sneak up on a deer. I'd settle for a fat tree squirrel."
"What will that leave us to eat?"
"Don't worry, on account I put up a few days' worth of sweet corn fritters. Maybe if we was to poke around those pools and cut banks we could scare up an unwary fish or two."
He showed Joady how to whittle gigs from thin branches and they snagged five small trout, which he gutted and cleaned and then laid over sticks to roast. When Levi returned to camp the last sliver of the sun had slipped behind the ridgeline. A fire glowed underneath an iron pan and lard popped like tiny firecrackers as Wayman spooned in corn fritters. Levi had collected wild greens from near the creek and they fried along with the fritters.
After darkness settled in and the men told stories, they bedded down around the campfire. Wayman rolled up his trousers for a pillow, curled up in a wool blanket and was soon asleep and dreaming of a big strike. Later that night, he woke and got stiffly to his feet. The fire's embers were cold and Levi was snoring. Wayman walked barefooted a few paces and pissed on a tree. From across the meadow, he heard a sudden loud noise. Like dry branches snapping. He canted his head. A large animal was moving through the woods. Wayman kicked Levi's foot. "What is it?" he grumbled.
"Something's out there."
"A deer maybe?"
"I can't see a damn thing."
"Get your rifle, Levi."
Another loud noise crashed and thumped out in the darkness. Levi got to his feet.
"Might be a bear," he said. "Where's my rifle?"
"Leaned against your pack."
Levi dropped to his hands and knees and felt his way to his pack, patting his hands for the feel of the steel barrel.
"Where the damned mules?" Wayman said.
Joady woke and stared dumbly into the inky night.
"Wayman . . . Wayman!" he called.
"Over here," Wayman answered.
Levi was still searching for the rifle. "Something's moving closer."
"If it's a bear he's after the mules," Wayman said.
"Joady boy, where did I leave the rifle?" asked Levi.
"The last time I saw was when you returned from hunting. Maybe you leaned it on the tree."
A loud splashing sound came from upstream, like a large animal running through shallow water. Wayman strained his eyes hoping to catch sight of the mules but all he saw were patterns of gray and black. Levi finally felt the cool steel of the rifle and he crept toward Wayman.
One of the mules snorted. "We best get those mules in a hurry."
"Reckon we'd better."
"Stay here Joady," Wayman cautioned. "See if you can get a fire going."
The creek lay ahead and patches of white sand shone like grayish blurs among the shadows. Wayman and Levi tiptoed forward.
"How many loads you got?" Wayman whispered.
"One in the rifle and three in my pocket."
"They say you smell a grizzly before you ever see him."
"I don't smell nothing. Where them mules? How come they don't smell that bear?"
Another loud splashing sound came from upstream. Wayman felt his gut tighten. If they lost their mules they'd be finished, for the work of prospecting was impossible without pack animals. The clouds that had obscured the sky parted and starlight fell on the meadow, enough so to make a vague silhouette of the closest mule. He whickered softly as Wayman gathered the halter strap in his hand. The second mule, a few yards farther upstream, was stutter stepping against his hobbles.
"There he is," Levi said in a loud whisper.
Wayman barely spotted the mule's outline. Levi secured the first mule and Wayman hurried ahead to grab the other, then with both animals in tow, they turned towards camp. Joady had managed to get a thatch of twigs and a few sticks burning, and the three of them sat listening.
"You think it was a bear?" Wayman said.
"A bear don't quit if he's hungry," said Levi.
"Must have been a deer."
"A mighty clumsy deer by the racket."
No one slept much that night even though Levi and Wayman took turns standing watch. At first light, they packed the mules and were ready to leave. Joady looked to Wayman. "Guess I'd better get started."
"Don't dawdle," Wayman cautioned. "Hurry down that trail as if the devil himself was behind you."
"Maybe it was just a little black bear or a hungry coyote," Joady said hopefully.
"Probably that's right," Levi agreed. "In the middle of a dark night even a raccoon sounds like a tribe of elephants!"
The men laughed. Joady forced a smile. "I should stay, in case you need help."
"You get back to your job. Keep a good clip you'll be home in time for lunch," Wayman said.
"But what if it was a grizzly and he stalks me?"
The two men looked at each other. "Let the boy take your Smithy .32," Levi said. "We got little use for it."
"It's just a pistol, ain't all too accurate," Joady complained.
"But it makes a powerful-loud blast. That's enough to scare off a bear, and it's damn sure better than attacking him with your farts."
"I'd rather attack him with a big Winchester 45-90."
"You'll be fine, Joady boy, just keep your feet moving," Levi said.
Wayman tugged at the pack straps to make sure they were tight and Levi slung the rifle over his shoulder. They watched Joady disappear down the trail and then coaxed the mules for the high ridge. As the sun rose above the distant peaks, Wayman said, "It was a bear last night, Levi. And I'll bet it was a grizzly."
Levi looked up. "I figured as much. Do you think the boy will be all right?"
"The bear will follow us. He'll follow the scent of the mules."
By noon clouds rose in the southeast. The men had trudged up the canyon to the high valley and the mules were sweaty. The stream, fed by snowmelt from the highest peaks, would still be running. Wayman called ahead to Levi and told him to turn for the streambed. Levi waved a hand and tugged his mule's lead rope. The animal threw his head and then followed him down a narrow coulee.
Unlike some men, Wayman held no superstitions about grizzlies, but he kept looking over his shoulder, checking the tree line left and right. The stream flowed well, nearly twenty feet across and several feet deep. The mules waded into the shallows to drink. Levi leaned the rifle against a young blue fir and began stripping off his clothes. "I'm cooked like Irish stew, what say we make camp," he said. He waded into the chilly water and with great ceremony splashed and hollered, and then dunked himself under. A blue jay cocked his head, watching from a treetop. The mules lifted their heads and twitched their ears toward Levi's commotion.
Wayman was cautious and methodical, always had been, but Levi was excitable, impulsive and full of energy. While he splashed water under his arms and scoured his shaggy hair with his fingertips, Wayman heard something. Just beyond the heavy growth at the far side of the rocky bank something moved. The blue jay squawked an alarm and flew to higher branches. Wayman's mule snorted and suddenly bolted toward the bank and leapt onto the grassy shelf at the water's edge. The other mule followed and the two galloped up the coulee toward the trail.
Wayman started for the mules. A grizzly's head appeared, pushing his way through a patch of blackberries. Levi saw the bear but knew he couldn't move fast enough to escape a charge, so he went headfirst under the water and frog-stroked along the bottom, the current moving him quickly downstream. The bear, clear of the thicket, saw only Wayman lifting the rifle to his shoulder. The huge animal rose up on hind legs.
Downstream Levi's head surfaced and he grabbed a tree root to stay against the current. Wayman steadied his hands and tried to take aim but the bear dropped on his forepaws, turned back into the tangle of berry vines and disappeared into the underbrush. Levi waded from the stream and hurried to where Wayman stood. "Good thing he followed us and not the boy," he said.
"I thought he would."
"Grizzlies are sly. He might circle back on us."
"We'll hope not." Wayman's legs were trembling as he started for the coulee. He handed the rifle to Levi and they made their way to the trail. The mules were jumpy and wild-eyed but as Wayman drew nearer, his mule submitted to his master's custody.
Several hours later, the valley narrowed to another canyon cutting along a granite-studded ridge, which flattened into an expanse of pine forest where the stream angled northeast and then cut through rocky deposits where water slipped over white sands and polished stones before reaching a shelf over which it plunged into a deep pool. Tired from the long day's tribulations, Wayman and Levi decided to camp in the clearing near the waterfall. The high meadow was another five or six hours through increasingly rugged landscape, and neither man nor mule had the desire to push ahead. Wayman stopped short of the pool and wiped his forehead. Levi surveyed the pool for a moment before dropping his mule's lead rope and flinging himself down to drink at the water's edge. He dipped his head under, hat included, then sat on a flat rock.
"Levi," Wayman said crossly, "don't go leaving your rifle strapped on the pack."
"The bear won't follow us this high into the mountains."
"He followed us from the first meadow," Wayman insisted.
"Maybe it weren't the same bear."
"It had to been the same bear."
Levi said nothing. Wayman walked from the water's edge to Levi's mule to untie the rifle. "Levi!" he hollered over the sounds of the waterfall. "Where's the ammo?"
"In the side pack." Levi lay on the flat rock with his hands under his head.
Wayman untied the canvas flap and pulled out the box of shells. He took off the lid and inspected the contents. Two rows of shiny brass casings. He pulled a round from the box and loaded the rifle, put two more in his pocket and set about hobbling the mules.
When twilight left it was dark except for the glow of the campfire. Levi's legs stretched before him to take the warmth. Wayman spooned beans from the tin plate and mopped the last bit of grease with a crust of bread. Then he drank a cup of water.
"One of us should keep watch," Wayman said. "That bear might still be nearby."
Levi opened an eyelid. "Forget the bear. He's long gone in other directions. If I don't catch a full night's rest I'll feel puny in the morning."
Despite Levi's lack of concern, Wayman stayed awake for several hours, listening to his friend's snoring, the darkness alive with the sounds of insects and night birds.
Early next morning the two men ascended into heavier forest of lodge poles and blue firs, where strange mists moved ahead of them like ghostly apparitions. By afternoon, they'd walked a ridgeline stretching between rocky highlands and small gladed gaps where the trees grew stunted in unyielding soil.
On a shortcut around a rocky bluff, Wayman spotted an unusual formation. He picked up an oddly colored stone. Fifty feet farther, he came to an escarpment bordered by a stand of young firs growing from cracks in a rocky ledge. A boulder of rosy granite caught his attention. He inspected the monolith and noticed a lengthy splay of fool's gold running beside a vein of quartz. He wiped sweat from his brow and glanced over his shoulder. Levi's mule was just disappearing around a bend in the trail. Wayman looked again at the rock and rubbed his eyes, as if to improve their focus.
"Levi!" he hollered. "Come back here and have a look. There's the queerest vein of fool's gold in this red boulder."
Levi deliberated for a moment before turning his mule. After tying both mules' lead ropes together, he grunted his displeasure at having to indulge his old friend's curiosity. When he arrived at Wayman's side, he bent forward and looked where Wayman was pointing. Levi squinted. He unscrewed his canteen and splashed water on the rock, using his bandana to rub the shiny vein.
"By God and by Jesus! Wayman have you been struck blind?" he shouted. "That ain't no fool's gold. That's the real thing."
Wayman's jaw went slack. "You must be dreaming," he laughed.
Levi pushed him aside and dug the point of his hunting knife into the yellow streak. The soft metal peeled back like cold beeswax. "Dang straight hell yes it is! All these years of working these unfriendly mountains and we've found us a vein of pure gold."
"Now I can buy some land. Always wanted a ranch, a big ranch," Wayman said.
"You can buy a damned castle if you want to."
"Who needs a castle? I just want a place to call my own, some good bottomland to grow my food, a house I can fix up if I feel like it . . . or not fix it up if I don't feel like it. A place where nobody can run me off."
"I want to go to San Francisco and live it up! Have a hot bath every day."
Through the pines not twenty-five feet from where the men joined in reverie, the head of a grizzly appeared above the undergrowth, the dark muzzle raised, neck stretched, his black nostrils sniffing the air. A swarm of flies buzzed around his head. He lumbered forward and woofed out a blast of air from his nose and mouth. Wayman stood. The bear shifted his weight. Levi back-stepped toward the mules and the rifle.
Wayman didn't like his position beside the craggy shelf but the bear was too close to make a run for it. He hoped Levi would aim and shoot before the animal charged. The frightened mules bolted, but with lead ropes tied together they were at odds, dancing in circles, tossing their heads. Levi seized his mule's halter; the other mule jerked hard and snapped his threadbare lead rope like a shoelace. The grizzly snorted and charged, swiping Wayman off his feet with a massive paw. Wayman flipped over and fell headfirst. The blow left him limp, like a pile of blankets. Levi pulled at the knot in the leather strap as the mule brayed and bucked. The bear sniffed over the body, then he took Wayman in his jaws and turned toward the trees, his yellow teeth clapped down on Wayman's ribcage, carrying the limp body the way a dog would carry a dead kitten.
Levi lost his grip on the mule's halter and the animal pulled loose. He lunged at the mule and caught the rope but the mule bucked and the rifle tore loose, landing barrel first in the dirt. All Levi could see was the bear's broad hindquarters disappearing into the trees. He grabbed the rifle, cleared the barrel and fired. The bullet grazed the bear's back side and he dropped Wayman and turned, then rose up on his hind legs. Levi reloaded and fire again. The slug ripped into the bear's massive shoulder and he swatted at the air as if warding off an unseen enemy. Levi started to reload but the bear charged and as Levi tried to chamber the bullet, his fingers failed him and he dropped it in the dirt. He turned and ran, hoping to buy enough time to get another shell from his pocket.
The bear bounded forward ten-feet at a leap. Hearing the bear closing, Levi turned and shoved the bullet into the chamber. The beast was coming like an avalanche of muscle and teeth. Levi fired, the rifle spitting forth another cloud of blue-gray smoke. The slug hammered the bear's breastplate, sending ripples through his fur and splintering bone. He fell hard on his forepaws. He snarled and showed his long canines and beet-red tongue. Levi shoved his last bullet into the breech and raised the rifle. The bear charged again and Levi pulled the trigger.
The bullet entered the back of the grizzly's throat and cut the spinal cord, dropping him in his tracks. The cloud of smoke thinning as it rose into the sky.
"Levi . . . " Wayman cried.
Levi looked to the sound of his friend's voice. He scrambled up the slope to the edge of the small pines. Blood was flowing from deep gashes in Wayman's thigh where the grizzly's claws had torn a path. "Wayman, I got to get your leg tied off in a hurry."
Wayman couldn't find enough breath to speak. Levi undid his belt and cinched it tightly around Wayman's thigh.
"You gotta hold the belt tight. Can you do that?"
Wayman reached for the belt with his good hand. Levi scrambled down the slope and across the rocky flats to where the mules stood. He calmed his mule and got a blanket and roll of cotton wrap from his medicine bag. When he returned, Wayman's face was paler than spilt milk, his teeth clamped against the pain. Levi balled up the blanket and put it under Wayman's head, then used his knife to cut through the pant leg.
"I ain't gonna make it," Wayman said in a loud whisper. Blood spattered out with the words, leaving a thin residue on his lips.
"Don't give out on me, now. Just let me get this wound wrapped. The bleeding has slowed. A tight binding will stop it altogether."
"It's not my leg, Levi. It's my chest. Bubbles are coming out of the hole in my chest," Wayman said helplessly.
Levi saw a tear in Wayman's shirt. Blood was oozing as would water from a spring, its flow interrupted at each breath by escaping air. Levi unbuttoned the shirt. Between a pair of bony ribs, was a hole the width of a man's thumb.
"Oh, Jesus," Levi mumbled. Wayman tried to speak but choked and spit out a dark clot that caught on his whiskers and dangled from his chin. Levi winced.
"I'm drowning in my own blood," Wayman whispered. He wretched, his lungs making gurgling sounds with each breath.
"I got to get you propped up, help the blood drain."
Levi gently raised his friend by the armpits. Wayman cried out and spat flecks of half-clotted blood, losing his grip on the leather belt.
"Oh, mercy," Levi said, his face raw with desperation.
"It ain't no use, Levi. Just bring me a chunk of that gold and let me hold it before I go. And see to it that you take care of the boy. Promise you'll let him have my share."
Levi leaned forward, close enough to smell blood on Wayman's breath. "I'll take care of the boy, don't fret none, but damn it don't you go and die on me. We've worked ourselves to death and finally hit the big one. You hang on, Wayman, hang on."
Wayman couldn't get enough air for a reply and used his good hand to push Levi away, his eyes drifting as he gestured toward the red granite. Levi rose to his feet and looked down on his friend's broken body. He ran to the boulder and crouched, set the knifepoint against the gold, grabbed up a fist-sized rock and pounded furiously, prying out a wedge of soft yellow metal.
"Wayman, here's a chunk of pure shiny gold," he said.
Wayman held it up in the sunlight between his thumb and forefinger.
"Damn foolish man that I am . . . to think I spent the best years of my life scratching and scrapping for this."
Levi took his hand. "We did it because we thought we'd be the lucky ones, but the simple truth is, in this world there ain't enough luck to go around."
Wayman coughed again and bloody mist sprayed from his mouth. Then he grimaced and his chin fell to his chest. "Levi, see to it the boy don't listen to lies and waste his life hunting for gold. Tell him what you just said." His eyelids closed and his breathing stopped. His chest releasing a soft whistling sound, like a breeze blowing through a field of wheat. A blue jay lit atop a nearby pine. He considered the two men. Levi's face twisted up in anger, his cheeks flushing as he stood and raised a clenched fist and shook it at the sky.
"This ain't fair, goddamned you know it ain't. It just ain't fair," he bellowed to the emptiness above.
The blue jay cocked his head and made a squawking plaintive call, and then flew toward the valley and the hazy sunset, the amber light soon to leave the fading sky.