"Clem, get over here with that dang coffee. This icy water tain't doin' my rheumatism a damn bit of good."
"Comin', Pa," Clem called, pouring the thick brew into a metal cup. Looking at the old man hunched over in the stream was sobering. He'd aged ten years, maybe more since they left their mountain cabin in the Appalachians. Every cent he'd put by over the years became traveling money the moment news of gold in the west reached his ears.
Leaving the isolation of the mountains had been no great loss. Clem wanted to see something of the world and the pittance a school teacher made wasn't nearly enough to keep them from leaving. At first it seemed like a grand adventure.
By the time they joined a wagon train leaving Missouri for the drive on the Overland Emigrant Trail, worry began to set in. Pa seemed possessed, consumed with the idea they'd soon be rich and he squandered money needlessly, insisting they would make the trip in style.
He bought horses and mules when the wagon master advised him that oxen would make the long, difficult trip better. They put in an ample supply of food stores, but also more whiskey than any one man needed. Despite this, Clem watched helplessly as he traded away grain, sugar and coffee for more whiskey after he'd exhausted his supply.
'Gold Fever' some called it and Clem could certainly see why. They hadn't even seen their first shimmer of the yellow metal and already Pa was sick with the want of it.
The arduous trip took more than five months. The only horse to survive was one Clem took to caring for, making sure he had enough to eat and walking him as much as possible. She named him 'Trooper' and admired his stamina. At a stop before the forty mile desert they managed to trade the mules, two nearly dead horses and some goods for a team of oxen or Clem figured they'd still be stuck right there.
In the evening, when he was sober, Clem read aloud to him from a book on mining they found in St. Louis. It seemed like a dirty and often unsuccessful occupation, but Pa was convinced that once they made it to California, all would be well. Shrugging, Clem read on.
Now, settled on the Culpepper River in the foothills of the Sierra's, it looked as though he may have been right. Each day showed some color and it was getting brighter all the time. They kept to themselves, only going into the town of Culpepper Cove for supplies and to see the assayer. Pa had a strut to his step when he wasn't knee-deep in the cold water flowing down from the mountains. It was early spring. The snow in the Sierras was beginning to melt and he'd slowed down on his drinking. Maybe he'd been right all along. Maybe they would make their fortune in the hills of California. To him it might as well have been the Promised Land.
"Here's the coffee, Pa."
"It's about time," Clyde McKay barked just before the bullet that took his life hit him square between the eyes.
Clem dove for the ground watching him fly backward, the coffee sinking into the dirt of the bank beside him. Inching forward toward Pa's gun, another bullet plowed into the muck less than a foot away.
"Don't go no farther, son. Your Pa's likely dead anyway and unless you'd like to join him in the hereafter, I suggest you pack up your gear and hightail it out of here. I mean to have this mine one way or another," a voice that was strangely pleasant called down from an outcropping of rocks.
Clem froze, not knowing which way to run.
"I'm a patient man," the voice continued, "so I'll give you an hour to pack up your belongings and get. And I suggest you take your father's body with you and get him a decent burial in Culpepper Cove. I can see there's some gold in that pan. Take it with you as it's the last you'll see from this mine."
Sick with fear and grief, Clem lie on the ground, cheek pressed against the cold earth until another gunshot split the air. Jumping up and gathering everything in sight seemed the smartest course under the one-sided circumstances. With the use of a rope and a big rock for leverage, Clem managed to get Pa's body over the back of the mule and tied into place, brushing away angry tears in the process. In less than an hour, they were on their way to town with little but a few clothes, personal possessions and a small pouch of gold Pa kept hidden in their tent. It wasn't much. Barely enough to bury him, but the pistol shoved in the waistband of the pants Clem wore went a long way toward riding with a stiff spine. It was the very pistol Clem would use to exact revenge when the time came.