My skin wretches in relief and muscles relax in my arched back, as the scolding flow from the shower ceases as I twist the golden faucet tight. I stand still and heave a deep breath out as normal feeling returns to my near blistered and long-since worn-out body. I amble out of the recess that houses the shower – wet-room, they call it. Little do they realize that I’ve only just gotten completely used to the idea of a bathroom.
Bathroom. In Dakota (when it was just Dakota) you had a tin bath, and you shared it with your siblings – after your father. (But, most likely, he wasn’t around that particular evening, anyway.) This bathroom is bigger than the house I grew up in. And all this marble. How they forget – I’ve seen Napoleon’s tomb.
I lean hunched against one of the rails they insisted I install – because they think I am so very old, so brittle… so weak. I’m just tired.
I compose myself and dry off my body, which can take a while as daydreaming always comes to me at this point. I wince at the mirror as I catch sight of an old man grappling with one of my monogrammed towels. The wince is, of course, just for show; trying to mislead myself just like the snake oil man of my past misled hundreds of people out of hundreds of their dollars. It’s the hardest thing in the world to concede defeat to time.
I finish with the towel, hang it over the rack – and, naturally, it slides off, but it’s more than my spine’s worth to try and pick it up. They would chide me for a little humour like that. If, that is to say, they were listening.
I scoff. At something, or nothing. This stirs the attention of Dutch, my old bloodhound – as long in the tooth as his master and proving all too well the adage that dog and master grow alike; in temperament and appearance. I drape myself in the heavy toweled bathrobe, letting it absorb the remaining moisture on my skin.
He follows me out into the bedchamber, both of us making slow, weary progress. I sit myself down on the edge of the bed for a breather and Dutch nudges his muzzle against my knee, we share a look of mutual understanding.
Our moment is brought to an abrupt end as my negro valet, Pete, enters and I am filled with the energy that authority provides as necessity. “Mornin’, Mr. Burke,” he says with a familiar nod, I reply in kind. His youngest child has a fever. Nothing serious. His wife has taken her to the doctor.
I rise and Pete lays out the appropriate outfit for the day. He doesn’t dress me, I still reserve that luxury for myself. Pete leaves. Heavy Oxford cotton shirt, dark cords and a thick cardigan to resist the chill outdoors.
I leave my cane where it rests by the bedside. The hip isn’t so bad today. Dutch lays like a half-filled sack by the warmth of the fireplace embers, these days he comes when he pleases. As I leave the room I tap the glass covering a painting of my favourite horse for luck.
I tread down the stairs to commence the first of the rituals that have come to consume my last days. Hours? I wonder. Hope?
Breakfast is, at least, a fairly essential ritual as the quacks tell us it kick-starts the engines and stokes the fires of productivity. Or, at least, that’s what I would’ve told my boys back in the camps. On the other hand, for me personally, you could say it’s a fairly unessential ritual. To whit; what fires? What productivity?
Sal bustles in like a human dessert cart with my ritual breakfast. Porridge oats. Not the sweet ‘n’ creamed kind but salted so as you know you’re eating something. Sal has worked in this house since there was a house; she has fed her porridge, her biscuits and her peach cobbler to three generations of Burkes. Not that my grandchildren scuff the marble with their presence so much as I have to call a mason. But Sal, or so she would have us believe, enjoys no activity more than cooking and I have never been one to deny anyone the light of their days.
After my porridge I take my coffee out onto the veranda, leaving Sal to tend to the dishes and uneaten toast. It is a still, bleak day. There is a calm that suggests a storm but my arthritis would usually have flared by now if that was the case. Arthritis and bad weather are the calling cards of the mining business. The West has a reputation to keep and short of the possibility of a flooded shaft you can’t shut down the operation every time there’s a sputter of rain. I can also take comfort in my arthritis; it is constant evidence of and testament to the punishing work of a lifetime.
I take a few sips of the strong black coffee, another reminder of the camps. I gaze over the surrounding land, ornamental gardens in the foreground extending towards my private, personal golf course. Eighteen holes.
I hate that game.
Beyond the course is the – Wait. No, it couldn’t be. I squint into the distance, but no, there’s nothing there. For a moment, a cruel trick by a degenerating brain, I could have sworn my old horse, Hector, trotted over the crest of that hill.
I look down into my coffee and shake my head, laughing softly out loud to myself.
I place myself on one of the cast iron chairs that sit along the veranda like God’s own waiting room and further sip my sharp, smoky beverage. Pete appears from within the house and, despite my futile protestations, lays a tartan blanket over me and sets down the newspapers on the table by my side. I thumb through these with little interest in the tapestry of corruption and fiscal stumbling that they weave before me. More an exercise in keeping the faculties alert than a lust for current affairs, as we are hearing ‘the news’ more and more referred to, as if we should be thankful they aren’t still flogging the corpse of things past.
Despite the bite of the weather that prevents my reaching a state of comfort I drift in and out of consciousness, battling with my own dreams and the stories from the newspapers, weaving together unlikely scenarios involving golfing with the President in the wilder parts of California. This state of being persists and I battle internally also between the shame of sleeping pre-noon and the stubbornness of not wanting to retreat indoors.
I am awake to the abrupt clatter of china hitting the slate surface of the veranda; a broken handle. I lean forwards to pick it up again, newspapers slide off of my lap, but then my eye is caught in the distance… the horse again. I squint towards the hill, my eyes have held up well, and there is the unmistakable figure of a horse mulling around up there.
Surely it’s just a runaway from a neighbouring farm? But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like Hector. I toss aside the blanket and rise to my feet, walking to edge of the platform again; the horse seems almost to stare at me from the hill. I walk along to the steps that lead down into the ornamental garden and I come through the pristine hedges to the lawns, the horse still a couple of hundred yards away, I trek over to it through the moist grass and cautiously make my approach.
I’ve handled horses for as long as I can remember but this one has to be the calmest, confident even, animal I have ever encountered. I move closer towards it and stroke its muzzle gently to avoid spooking it–him, actually.
Uncanny: the same uneven diamond between the eyes as Hector. I softly whisper that name close to his ear whilst stroking the underside of his muzzle. Now I’ve never believed that horses are like dogs and have the capacity to recognise the sounds of names but I’d struggle to say that those huge, glassy eyes didn’t flicker with understanding just then. Wishful thinking of an old fool.
As I pat him more firmly, reassuringly, to cement our trust, the storm I had sensed earlier breaks with an alarming, for both of us, almost tangible flash accompanied scant seconds later with a chorus of thunder that shakes me to my core. Hector II is clearly more substantially affected as before I can offer an ‘Easy boy’ he bucks and tosses me clean off of my feet with an immensely strong limb.
As I am knocked back through the air, during these seconds that seem stretched to minutes, I am first aware of the lack of ground beneath my feet; secondly aware of the sharp dull pain that now pierces through my upper body, perhaps even head; thirdly aware that gravity is working its magic to bring me back down and, finally, the heavy thump when it does which precipitates a further blow, this time to the back of my head, and a wholly unwelcome landing on my spine.
And then, I can feel dirt… sand… under my fingertips. My eyes open and close swiftly to bright clear skies which I momentarily squint into before I feel heavy rain patter down over the dry ground and myself. I pull myself wearily up from the ground and realise, looking down at my clothes; not rain, not water – oil.
I’m surrounded by desert, people are tearing around and shouting; orders to put out lights, cigarettes, fires; get this or that equipment; and someone is calling me –“Hank”- I look around still bleary from the.. from whatever happened. Again-“Hank!”
A short man blackened and slick with oil grabs my shoulders; Walt Haines, my business partner.
‘Oil, Hank, oil!’ He laughs and wipes his hand over my face laughing and then turning to the ferocious spout of oil towering above us. ‘Christ, we comes for gold and we finds it alright, even if it ain’t yeller.’
Yes. Yes, now I remember. We were digging out here for gold. Digging nearly a week without a find and then… hell broke loose.
I tug on his shoulder and shout, above the torrent of the oil, ‘Walt, what happened to the horse?’
‘What?’ he squints, in the strange manner people do when they can’t hear you, so I shout again. He answers, ‘Horse? What horse? You need a horse we got plenty over at camp.’ He shrugs and turns back to the oil.
Then another call; ‘Boss? Boss!’ I look towards the burly figure shouting over at me from behind some displaced rocks, ‘Over here, sir!’
I stare for a further moment and then, patting Walt’s shoulder, I rush over to the scene. The burly figure, Sergeant Laurence, one of my longest-serving men, and several other workers are crowded around a prostrate figure, a young man, no older than twenty years, I start to ask what the matter is – but then I notice the expanding puddle of blood in the sand, some absorbed by the dry dust, but mostly pooling up near his head, now mingling with droplets of oil.
He twitches a little. But the light has gone from his eyes.
‘Are you alright, sir?’ the Sergeant bustles, his thick moustache, smeared with oil, flicks up and down as he speaks.
I raise my hand and speak curtly, under the circumstances; ‘I’m fine. Get this boy out of here,’ I gesture to the two other men, ‘Get him back to camp.’
‘Doctor?’ asks one.
I shake my head and turn quickly back to the scene, settled chaos now. I make my uneasy way towards the other men, the dry desert earth now an acrid marshland, the Sergeant follows me, presumably his vast bulk allowing him an extra advantage of purchase over the slick ground, and we attend to the other men; asking, is anyone else is injured? a few broken bones, nothing serious, boss; my head still rings; anyone caught down the shaft? Simpkins, sir.
Two dead. My mercenary mind is unable not to begin doing internal calculations; weighing the profit and loss of two dead men against a tide of oil and prospect. The result of the calculation remains respectfully at the back of my mind, for now.
I snap back into attention at the Sergeant’s bellowing; ‘Alright you men, back it up, back to camp. No sense standing around and getting your Sunday suits all oiled up. Let’s move, boys.’
The Sergeant, running calculations in my head again, is surely literally worth his weight in gold; a veteran of the Civil War, like all good officers he knows what his commander would want him to do in an emergency and now freed from the regulations of the military he is able to carry them out without the order from me. The men gather themselves up and form a troupe bound for the camp, like some dark pack of ghouls from a child’s nightmare.
Sergeant Laurence only starts out once he’s sure Walt and I are coming along too. Walt is still grinning from ear to ear, and apparently has been all the while he was gawping at the spout as his teeth are like little liquorish candies.
‘Christ, Hank, this is better than a ton of gold, for sure,’ he says, rubbing his filthy hands together, wringing them with anticipation, or greed.
I sigh, more reserved, ‘The hell we know about moving oil?’
‘We’ll sell to Standard, they’ll pay. Boy’ll they ever pay.’
‘Sure, we’ll sell those bastards this heap of oil and they’ll have every last speck of gold here too.’
‘What’ll we wanna be scrubbing around for gold when we sell to ol’ John D.?’
‘Ol’ John D. will be laughing himself to yet another bank with all the gold under our feet here. I say we wait. We-‘
‘Awh, Hank, we ain’t getting no younger, I’m tired of all this. Don’t you wanna sleep in a bed off the floor? A good meal? Nice girl?’
‘I’m already married-‘
‘Well then you could get yourself another gal, too.”
‘Each to his own, Hank, each to his own…’ says Walt as he sticks his hands into his pockets, swiftly taking them out upon realising they, like everything, are covered in oil.
My head throbs all evening, even though I can’t find so much as a bump or scratch on it, and then when I think about the pain it seems to be almost elsewhere, at the back of my mind. This doesn’t improve my usually dour mood and gives me extra cause to confine myself to my tent for the evening. The camp’s young negress cook brought me beans earlier but I leave them to cool and thicken in the bowl, unable to shake the days events from my mind; not just all the upset around the claim and the camp, but Walt’s plans.
I can still manage to sip whiskey from a tin cup, enjoying the sting as it slides down my throat. He is being unreasonable. Why can’t he see? Gold first, above all; then silver; then copper and other metals; then the filthy muck below can be summoned. But Walt has never cared for our product as much for what it can be exchanged for. People would laugh in my face if I tried to tell them I felt the opposite; that the joy is in bringing in a claim – no, the claim.
How can I retire now? With so much gold still out there in this New World; the very thought of someone else blowing holes in the earth and stumbling like a newborn into something tantamount to El Dorado makes me seethe with envy almost to the point of rage, or hernia. Perhaps I am ill. Perhaps Walt is right; it’s just gold, Hank, he’d say.
I reach across the table and pick out a chunk of the yellow metal from among a few samples, holding it up to catch the lamp light, letting the dull glow caress the mottled surface before tightening my grip around it so that the same surface digs into my skin. Gold is forever, you see, you can’t burn it up, its value isn’t in its use – its very uselessness and permanence has made men slaughter each other more than almost anything else. The allure is primal and ancient, like a sparkling fire we contain all to ourselves. Just gold, I release my grip. Just gold, I drop it to the table.
I push away from the table, rise up and, swiping my hat and the whiskey bottle, leave the tent. I’ve weighed my options. Done the calculations.
I stir from a deep, fitful sleep, confused, with the sun in my eyes and many voices in my ears. My eyes focus abruptly upon the round, corpulent face of Sergeant Laurence; ‘Sir?’ he asks, his voice carrying above the others. I blink.
‘Sir?’ he repeats as I swing my legs up from my cot, still fully clothed, and, pulling my body into a sitting position, I ask what the commotion is about.
‘Mr. Burke, it’s Mr. Haines, sir, he’s gone and fallen into the oil well. Sir, he’s dead.’
I blink again, taking in a sharp and unexpected breath as malignant dread wells up inside my stomach with flashes of memory. I stand up, anxiety giving unrest to my limbs, which the Sergeant takes for light-headedness arising from the news and tries to steady me. I shake him away and push through the onlookers out into the air and then on towards the well.
When I arrive at the scene Walt’s body has been fished out by some of the men, I ask who found him; an albino raises his hand sheepishly and tells me, after further prompting, that he had been told by Walt the night before to meet him at dawn with some of the others to begin repairs to the shaft, stabilising it, readying it. He tells me he was lucky to catch site of the body at the bottom of the shaft, just a patch of arm showing against the blackened rock and settled oil.
I inspect Walt’s body; he almost looks like a burns victim and I am directed to the back of his head, which is caved in like a broken egg, by the albino who offers unlooked for speculation that it was probably from the fall down the shaft. I ignore his prattling as my mind flashes with dread again – I remember arguing with Walt about the oil, Standard and, of course, the gold; but where, here at the shaft? I can’t remember.
‘Probably drunk again and came up here to boast to very the oil itself,’ says the Sergeant. I look up at him expressionlessly and get up from my knees. I nod gravely, ‘That must’ve been it.’
‘At least now,’ says the Sergeant with a pause, ‘you don’t have to sell to Standard, I guess.’ Both his tone and expression are entirely inscrutable.
I turn away from the scene, glancing back for another moment at Walt’s bludgeoned head. Was it a nasty fall; against a rock, perhaps a strut; or was it a pickaxe?
Three men dead and counting.
The three bodies sit on the back of a cart like any other load ready to be taken into town; the driver reassuringly strokes his horses’ muzzles each in turn as if the beasts could divine the nature of their sombre cargo. Clearly he credits them with enough suspicion as he himself possesses, evidenced by the small crucifix he presses into his hand as if trying to make it a part of him. I seethe silently and internally at this display, averting my gaze before he senses it upon him. As a rule I try not to employ the devout; religious men won’t work Sundays. I make a grim half-smile for a brief moment at this recurrent private joke, true as it is.
I turn as I hear the dull thud of other hooves coming towards me, smiling fully and unabashed as my own horse is brought towards me. I take the reigns and give him a reassuring pat, muttering general niceties at the animal and tracing the diamond on his forehead.
‘Same old journey, Hector,’ I say softly as I heave myself up into the saddle and then looking down to Laurence, ‘Shouldn’t be more than a day, two tops, if we can get moving well enough. You know what to do.’
The Sergeant nods once, a wordless reply to confirm that he will keep things running as always in my absence. Walt’s too, for that matter.
I give the signal for our small convoy to head out and Hector sets off to take position just ahead of the cart, two gunmen leading the way ahead and another two bringing up the rear.
We arrive in the small town as the last of the sunlight vanishes far over the flat plains; almost cutting our journey a little too close and leaving us sitting ducks for undesirables, both hostile locals and those passing through for a quick buck. I pinch the bridge of my nose as my head seems to throb violently once more and look for the town hall, if you could describe it as such, which has no visible lights and so I settle down for a sleepless night in the similarly dilapidated hotel while the men take shifts to protect our absent friends from jackals and other raiders of the night.
Upon waking (not so sleepless after all), I descend into the lobby and decline the gristly, black plate of what I assume passes as breakfast and make my way to see the appropriate officials to register the three deaths and arrange for their families, if they have any, to be informed and take possession of their worldly goods; though, these are hardly likely to be much more than a lucky bullet and a comb. The clerk is ruddy-faced, middle aged man who goes about his business in an admirably efficient, if not entirely pleasant, fashion: the way he refers to the dead men by their initial and surname is particularly bile-inducing; Where is W. Haines from? How old is W. Haines? Does W. Haines have any family? Only this question quells the desire within me to give his family something to be informed about.
I stare blankly, then, “No, no family.”
The clerk nods and presents me with several documents to sign, and thereafter I leave the stuffy little office and gulp in the fresh air, only wishing it weren’t so dry afterwards. The dread wells up inside me again as if it wants to burst from me and shatter my very being, but just can’t. I take a few deep breaths and lean against a hitching post, looking up to see the cart with the bodies being taken to their final resting place. I walk along after it, the town seeming appropriately devoid of life as I slowly progress down what passes for its main street to the small clapboard chapel and accompanying grave yard.
The cart-driver tells me that they have ready-dug graves and then goes on to tell me how much this simple display of efficiency appals him. For reasons unknown I don’t go on to tell him how much I want to bury him and his insipid superstitions in one of them, crucifix and all.
I shake this thought from my head and turn abruptly from the driver, wandering to the prospective grave sites, I breathe heavily again, but involuntarily this time; not even noon and already I’ve been driven to mentally murdering two men, and, banal though they might be, this is unhealthy, especially given recent events.
I clutch my head as the indefinable pain reaches a new crescendo, I stagger forwards and hold my hand in front of my eyes; where did this blood come from? In my distraction I lose my footing and tumble into one of the graves, someone is calling my name but this too seems distant and indefinable. I heave myself up from the sandy earth and claw at the walls of the grave but I can claim no purchase and I scramble pathetically until I am crippled by a pain through my back which brings me heavily to my knees.
The voice calls out my name again and I open my eyes to grey skies and rain, sand – sand, but not of the desert, just a bunker. The voice is clear now and as, apparently, is the pain in my head and back.
‘Mr. Burke?’ says the stranger, as he tries to help me to my feet.
‘I never fell in,’ I say, taking advantage of the stranger to lift myself out of the bunker.
But, no, not a stranger, just Pete.
‘Don’t worry sir, you’re okay, I think.’
I look around in a stupor, my clothes are soaked through yet patches of my own blood are still apparent against my shirt like gruesome inkblots, I scan the surroundings through the sheets of rain and light mist.
‘But what about the horse?’
‘Horse?’ asks Pete cluelessly, ‘Don’t worry about that now, let’s get you inside.’
We make fairly quick progress from thereon, my legs obviously not hurt, and Sal further helps when we reach the steps leading up to the French windows. When we enter the house I am rushed to nearest fireplace and fussed over with towel and hot water, brandy and some sort of broth, all before the doctor even arrives.
Dr. Ferguson washes the wounds once more and dresses them with bandages, and instructs Sal as he does for future reference. He tells me he’ll be back tomorrow to make sure there’s no major damage to my senses or pneumonia but that he doesn’t feel unduly worried at the moment, and I must simply let the other injuries heal and lead a sedentary life – I tell him not to worry on this account.
After he has left I take more of Dr. Sal’s prescribed brandy and make an attempt at some of the broth but nausea makes this too much of a challenge. In the subsequent hours I drift in and out of a deep sleep, next to the fire in a semi-comfortable armchair, wrapped in a blanket like a hapless newborn and with Dutch a lump of limbs and ears at my feet; Sal and Pete check on me every so often, when they do, and I am conscious, they then intrude on my canvass of dreams and memories, appearing in past events where they don’t belong – such as Sal as the cook at camp around the time Walt died. Gradually this seems to become a more and more convincing fit, but how could she still be that old all of those years ago?
A clock in a near hallway chimes twelve times and this brings me into something approaching consciousness. Sal sits on a stool by the other side of the doorway, I glance back at her for a moment and then into the fire and I remember; I was right, that girl was Sal. I croak her name through my dry mouth, then coughing I repeat it more clearly.
‘Yes, Mr. Burke,’ she says as she waddles over and leans over me.
‘Do you remember when you first worked for me, in the camps?’
‘Oh, yes sir, of course I do, damned cold on those desert nights,’ she says nodding, then admonishes herself, ‘Excuse my cussin’.’
‘Of course. Do you remember Mr. Haines?’ I ask and her eyes drop, ‘Walt Haines?
‘Mr. Haines, why yes, terrible, just terrible,’ she says and fiddles with her knitting, still clasped between her stumpy fingers.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, sir, why what happened to him, of course, the demon alcohol took him too soon,’ she shakes her head disapprovingly, despite forcing brandy down me like cough syrup earlier on.
‘The demon alcohol,’ I say in agreeable tones, ‘I’ve never been able to remember exactly what happened that night,’ I say, pausing at Sal’s increasing reluctance, ‘I mean, how much I was… involved, say.’
‘Oh, you, sir? No, no. Not you, you were asleep after the fight, why I –‘
‘You and he, Mr. Burke that is, you two did quarrel that evenin’, and you were both drunk, forgive me for saying so, but you went back to your tent and Mr. Haines, well, he went back to his.’
‘Then how did he-?’
‘Bad peaches,’ she says, interrupting me as if I should know what exactly she means, after a few moments my blank expression coerces more from her, ‘Mr. Haines, I told him I didn’t have none, but he insisted and I had to give him a can I knew weren’t no good. Lord, if I’d’ve known then…’
‘Bad peaches,’ I say matter-of-factly and then, after a brief moment, nod reassuringly to her as I settle back into my chair, Sal taking this as a signal to leave.
I cannot resist a light smile over my weather-cracked lips both at the very idea of an old can of peaches being the end of someone and of the guilt Sal has obviously been carrying around with her all these years over her perceived crime. I stoke the fire and am then abruptly distracted away from all the events of the past by the physical onslaught I have put my weary old self through today. And all for a horse.