You have to understand how it was. No doctors. No hospitals. Most of us hadn’t seen civilization in months. Years, if you counted the fellows who camped here last winter instead of heading to Sacramento. We each had a pick–most of us–and boots, and clothes, and dreams. We were covered in mud and never came clean. That’s what we shared, all of us ‘Niners.
And Dawson was crazy as a loon. Bigger than any man I’d ever seen: near seven foot tall and broad as a wagon’s backside. His breeches fit like leggings and his flannel exposed his elbows. We all smelled worse than a dog’s behind, but Dawson stank like a festering wound. He harassed everyone in the camp–white, Negro, or Mexican. He pushed up at night into a man’s face like a desperate whore: “Where’s the gold? Did you find gold?”
Dawson knew the truth, he said. The government planted the gold out here to tempt greedy men. The Army was waiting to see who died. They’d round up the survivors and sell them to the Injuns. When he spoke like this, he got a terrible gleam in his eye, and you knew all sense had left the man. Dawson muttered to his Bowie knife at night, calling it President Polk. He’d sneak up on men, grab them by the neck, and bring out the knife. “President’s coming for you, boys.” Scared the greenhorns out of their wits, but he always let them go.
Dawson was held to be scary but harmless. But when someone stole Kingsley’s gold right out from his tent, we knew it was Dawson. Axman Joe said he saw Dawson skulking round the tent, like he was going to piss but changed his mind. We trusted Joe. Everyone knew everyone’s business here. We all knew where each man slept and how he scratched himself. We knew who the thieves were and they weren’t us. That’s how we got through the days: trusting each other, because if we didn’t we’d start killing each other. Words were whispered, opinions exchanged, and some of us decided to meet by the old tree north of camp.
The tree was like Dawson–a broad oak, taller than its fellows. It was bent in the middle like it had battled another tree for the right to grow. That tree was older than California, a century perhaps, while this state was only two years old. Perhaps the tree was insane as well; I couldn’t tell with trees.
There were four of us–me, the Crane brothers, and Axman Joe. The Crane brothers just wanted him gone. It was Joe who said we had to take it further. Joe said a gold thief would be slitting throats in a week. “Saw it in Stockton,” he said, fingering his knife.
And there it was. Couldn’t kill him. Couldn’t let him go. We knew what happened to murderers–hanging. But we also couldn’t let him steal gold from other camps. That’s what I’m telling you: we had to trust each other to get through the days. That meant everyone, including men at other camps.
We hatched a plan. Joe was a burly guy, ex-coal miner. The brothers were farm boys, strong as oxen. That left me, the educated man, to do the persuading. My weapon was whiskey. I spent my last gold on the best bottle I could get. I whispered my plan to Dawson. We’d meet at the old oak on Sunday afternoon, just him and me, and get sopping drunk. His eyes widened and I knew I had him.
When the time came, Axman Joe and the Crane brothers crouched behind a rock. I sat under the tree with the whiskey. Dawson came up the hill, with President Polk tucked in his belt like always. He and I drank together. He did most of the talking. He ranted about suspenders and Chicago and the Army’s plans for us all. The sun crept across the sky. We got drunker. He drank more, but he was bigger. It seemed like he’d never go down.
Suddenly a twig snapped nearby. Dawson stopped mid-sentence and tilted his head. I feared the worst. He said, “Listen.”
I did. I was so drunk I could hardly think. Birds chirped and a stream was running in the distance. I thought I heard someone moving behind the rock. Dawson whispered, “President Polk wants to talk to you.”
The trees spun around me. The knife. I thought I was supposed to be doing something about the knife. That was the plan. “All right,” I said, wondering if he meant he would kill me.
Dawson nodded gravely. “Listen closely,” he said. He handed me the knife. I fumbled blindly before taking it. I heard the blood rushing through my ears like the American River. My pan was coming up empty. I held the knife to my ear, listening for gold nuggets.
Well, the other three took that as their cue. They jumped him. Dawson was a mean drunk, but a stupid one, and he’d had enough to miss his punches. I ducked out of the way. The three of them overpowered him. They drove him to the ground and bound his wrists and legs.
We strapped him to that oak, tight enough to hold but not constrict him. He howled like a demon. He kicked and screamed, and then got hysterical and soiled himself. We backed away slowly, mumbling promises about bringing him food. We didn’t think we’d keep them.
We went back to the camp. The others wondered where he’d gone, but not for long. Men came in and out of camps all the time. If anyone guessed the truth, they must have approved. Dawson became a camp legend told to scare greenhorns. I kept his knife. One Bowie looks just like another, and no one realized it was President Polk.
Four days later I struck the motherlode–gold like a waterfall dried in place on the rock wall. I dug my fortune, gave away my pick, and got the hell out of there. I still have the knife.
I see that look. You’re thinking I went back to the tree. Well, I thought about it. Thing was, I couldn’t do it. I know what he’d want. But by God, the preachers say we’d go to hell for murder. You have to understand. There was nothing else we could do.
Every summer, I get President Polk from his hiding place in my bureau. And I say, “You see how it was, don’t you?” All these years, the knife’s never spoken to me. I wish it would. If President Polk explained himself, I’d know I was mad. And that would excuse the thing we did that afternoon.