Warm Gold

I’ve written a historical novel about gold mining in Eastern Oregon, where I grew up. For the past two years I’ve been researching the Canyon City area, where gold was discovered on June 8, 1862. From the placer mines around the town, it is estimated that $26 million in gold (1860s prices) was taken from the area. Gold mining is still an active trade in Grant County; in fact, according to WesternMiningHistory.com, there are more mines registered in that county than in any other in Oregon. I’m actively seeking representation for the story, and have sent out some queries in hope of nabbing a bite. I’ll share in the process as I go.

Here’s the gist of Warm Gold

Deep under the mountain, an abandoned father and son discover a wealth surpassing their wildest imagination—that they are worth more than a mine of gold.

If you were to pick the book up and glance at the back cover …

A convict searches for his father in a mine, only to find an abandoned son. Battling the pressures under the mountain and the greed of the miners who seek to destroy them, they form a bond greater than any fear, wielding pick and drill against the inscrutable dimensions of the mine. But as the ore collapses around them, will the weight of the mountain, and its darkness, be too oppressive to destroy their father-son love?

Here is the opening to the novel, as it stands now …

Chapter One
September 1861

A gold nugget lay before him drawing him into the light. As he gazed, his arteries throbbed and his spine tingled for the story written in it, one of love and fear and the opening of his soul. “This was my—” He tried to speak, but his throat tore.

“Why didn’t he—”

“Yes, this was your father’s. And now it’s yours.”

Rub’s heart thumped so hard it welted his breastbone. “How is it mine?”

“Your father’s desire is that you have it. I’m delivering it to you from his hand. If you take it now, you can go to him. I’ll take you to him myself.”

“Is it okay?” He looked anxiously at a third story window of the brothel.

“Yes, boy. This heavy ticket stub is yours.”

“No, it’s not.” His long eyelashes flicked droplets of water down his cheeks.

The old peddler smiled, coughing into his handkerchief. “I’m telling you the truth, child. This nugget was your father’s. He’s waiting for you now. I’ll take you.”

He closed his eyes. Held his breath. In its depth and marring it was more beautiful than anything he’d imagined in his twelve years. Cupping his dirty hands, he broke the light at the mouth of his scrapmetal cave and extended them into the alleyway to receive the nugget from the decaying peddler.

But as the old man was about to drop it into his palms, Rub jerked. He smacked his face on a steel cog, scraping grime off his cheek. The peddler reached to support him, but Rub scooted away to the rear of the cave, mashing himself into the base of a brick wall—this home between the brothel and a brick factory in some forgotten, abandoned borough of Boston.

The two regarded the other for a moment—the old peddler peering in, his raw cheeks disappearing into the swath of his beard; Rub squinting back. His face was smudged with grime, as if the Artist who’d painted him had got his tone wrong and wanted to start over. But his sapphire eyes, like lanterns set in ore, burned with the hope of discovery. “Where is he?”

“He’s in a gold mine.”

“A gold mine?” His jaw loosened, lacking air. From a stash he brandished yellowed newspaper, the cartoon of a mine and its gold radiant before prospectors tangled together as they clawed for the Motherlode. “This gold mine?”

“No, I’ve seen that before. It’s from the California Gold Rush. Son, I’ll tell you. There is a different gold mine. One you have seen only hinted at in this city. You must understand that I’m speaking of a gold mine where your life and imagination are free.”

Rub writhed to angle himself in the light in the mouth of his cave. The veins in his neck strained. He opened his mouth but when he tried to speak, searing pain whistled through it from the tooth he’d chipped trying to gnaw rust off the bolts. His tender voice sounded like sea salt sprinkled in vanilla. “What’s he look like? What’s his name? Did he name me? What gold mine?”

“I’ll tell you. Son, but listen. It’s taken me over a decade to find you.”

The thick sunshine dug at the cave and the boy. He felt the pull of the nugget again, like the pull of the moon. It was pulling his conscience from him, tempting him to destroy it; or to steal it from the peddler and sprint from the alleyway, from Boston, from the cityfolk who had forgotten him, away from the marching soldiers and the gunshots and sabers, from the yellow, rotting teeth—until he himself was destroyed, falling like a withered leaf. He wiped his cheek, smearing tears. Inching to the mouth, he again extended his hand.

In the warm autumn light the peddler stood by his side. “Into this gold mine, this extraordinary gold mine,” he said, “we’ll go together. This is my promise.” His eyes glimmered with kindness.

And yet at the same moment as before, Rub faltered. He told himself that it was too far from the safety of this darkness. Too risky. Too dangerous. Too bathed in light. Pangs shot through him, maddening him as his body twisted to free itself to touch the nugget, even as he knew, deep in, it was wrong. “Can I please see him?”

“You can. In time. But understand the gift of this nugget. It is for you and you alone. It’s what miners call a keepsake nugget. And it demands a promise. One from the nugget. One from you. The promise you must make is that you will carry it with you until you find your father. And the promise of this nugget is that you will find him.”

His welted eyes poured open in their suffering. “But where is he?”

The old peddler’s chest swelled. His eyes flowed as if bathed in a tunnel of light. “This nugget is not the same one smudged in ink in your yellowed newspaper, son, but from a street paved in gold—the same one you’ve heard preached about in the streets of Boston. Haven’t you heard them speak?”

Rub nodded.

He tilted the nugget in and out of the sun. “He’s in the land of romantic grace.”

Rub was lost in the golden luminescence, too beautiful to pen or paint in words, dangling before him like a seed from heaven. He whispered, “Where?”

The husky voice of the peddler became thick and eternal. “He’s in the West. In the passion of a sunset. In a land where the apples overflow, where cottonwoods rustle in the breeze, where the valleys are so fertile that the crops multiply above your head, where all the fields are hemmed in by towering mountains rich in an endless vein of ore. In that land all of life is banded together in a rainbow. This is the land where your father is now living.”

The nugget was shaped like a tongue, thick and slender. As the peddler turned it, Rub’s heart bit hard. Woven in through its curves, depressions, dents and scars was a series of images—a susurrant story, luring him. He saw a man bearing a giant heart on his shoulders. He saw the same man standing at the mouth of a mine of gold. A third image showed him staggering out of it, gripping his head in torment, leaving behind a boy fallen in tears and their bullion of gold. And as the peddler showed him a fourth facet, Rub saw another man dancing, singing out, bearing his sticks, twirling in joy above a skull. All of these images were visible in its contours. His heart slackened and dripped. He was unsure of whether to bite the nugget or swallow it whole. He leaned his reedy body. “Does he remember me?”

“He does. He will forever.”

“How do you know?”

“Because a nugget like this comes only once to a boy and never again. Your father knows this. So take it. If you don’t, my journey here will have been a broken promise. Long ago I promised your father I would find you; and still he is keeping his promise to wait for you.” Liver spots crawled in and out of his eye sockets.

Rub tore at the silk chemise that smelled like rotten eggs, the only article of clothing the women from the brothel had given him. It fitted him loosely, and he had to cross the straps over his head to keep it from slipping off. He tore at it to be free from here and to bathe in the light where there was metal and hope and hands to hold him.

In the third story window of the brothel two voices, male and female, erupted into an argument that carried through the closed window, down through the lines of laundry. And at the mouth of the alleyway three soldiers had a fourth doubled over, gutting him with their fists. Rub winced from the drunken panorama. These old familiar habits of the alleyway. He cowered from the peddler. “I can’t go. My mum wants me with her.”

“Please take the nugget.” He was out of breath. “You don’t understand how dangerous it was for your father to mine this.” As he coughed, his sour breath flooded the boy.

“What’s his name? Did he name me Rub?”

He blew his nose with his handkerchief and pulled on his grey suspenders strapped over a red workshirt. “He did not name you Rub. I will tell you, and you will not belie—”

Before he could finish his sentence, his carthorse neighed sickeningly and slumped over, spent from the long journey from California, causing the apples to spill onto the ground. The old peddler wiped his brow, a look of consternation on his face. “Humphrey, not again. You can’t die now. We found him.” He rose to pet his neck.

Suddenly he clutched his chest in agony, coughing a spool of blood. As he gasped for air, he reached in his satchel for the small blue vial given him by a man named Sanballat, a curbside doctor who had promised that this tincture would aide him in finding the boy. But before he could speak again, he was dead from the poison. The nugget spilled from his fingers onto the soiled handkerchief.

Numbed, the boy waited for him to sit up, for his words to fill him again with hope. But he did not move. In the shadows, next to a drainpipe, a black cat curled its tail, the yellow eyes piercing him. The alley became still, conscious of the death, the brothel dark and inconspicuous. Rub knew no one would bother about him, for pedestrian and policeman alike were afraid of the trouble in that area of the city.

He cowered to the end of his cave, away from the light that slanted hard into the mouth—into the cool, protective darkness. Leering at the alleyway, he pulled his knees far up to his chin to keep the light off his toes. The sun was at it again: trying to hack him out of the metal with a violent pick. Every day it hunted his heart with unrelenting hands, clawing for the ore that hid his soul. But he would not give in. He pushed himself deeper into the torturous edges that pressed into his back until he bled.

In a world soused with harm, to venture a footfall into the open cobblestone, tread upon by lascivious men and cruel whores, promised the torture of the body, the rape of the will, the rending of the heart. He knew himself better in the dark, in the safety of the jagged metal pressing on all sides against his tender skin. He knew himself here. He knew what to do. How to live. He knew where the rats came in. To stretch himself out into the baking light was a danger that might lead to war.

But on a spire above and behind his cave, an oriole sang in a soothing whistle. It pulled him. His jaw throbbed. He leaned toward the mouth. The oriole perched on the cave and sang louder. Rub felt something tug under his tongue. He squeezed his fingers. Dare he venture through the muck, toward a better land?

But what does it matter now? he thought. I will die in this alleyway. What does it matter if I take this nugget west, following my dream for a father? I’m nothing more than a rub. An empty spittoon. I will never matter. The blood will come over me soon.

Yet the song stroked his ears, beneath the darkness that had tangled around him like a web. He leaned into the light, in agony for the nugget, to feel its weight and pour into it his secrets and his lost searching heart, his unbearable loneliness, his fear, his terrible fear, the fringe of his threadbare hope. He felt his courage returning. For the first time in his life, he had something solid to guide him. Mustering his strength, he stepped from his scrapmetal cave toward the city, choosing against his conscience to be separated, spirit from bone, by the horrifying light.

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