Sonny & Valerian


I know now that even prayers to all the saints and angels cannot save my precious Mission Dolores, which has been abandoned by Mexico and even by the holy church itself.  The mission will never again be the hope and salvation of anyone.  I know now that soon there will be nothing left of her but broken walls and weeds growing through the floors of the chapel.   Yet I still cling to her.  Still I remain.

I am Valerian.  I was born of two cultures, American and Mexican.  As you might imagine I am distinctive among Californios by my black curling hair, blue eyes and light skin.  Eight years ago, when I was a girl of sixteen, my father Don Rudolfo brought me to the mission, a year after my mother’s sudden death, finally intolerant of my obstinate, solitary mourning that had become such a burden to him as he tried to overcome his own sorrow.  The mission then was still prosperous, and it was here that my dear Magdalena eventually delivered me out of my great darkness and made me want to live again.  I am no nun and never will be, but I remain a devoted servant to the mission.  At the time I speak of there were only the three of us left to watch over poor, dying Dolores:  Padre Prudencio, Magdalena and me.  And of course, the spirit of St. Francis, whose presence we all had felt at special moments, though he spoke in silent voice only to Magdalena.

Still, we were innocents and could not have suspected the danger looming, nor how we would be entrapped beneath its shadow.   It fell upon us, however, the night we first heard about the Bear Flag trouble, when the americanos took our friend Mariano Vallejo from his hacienda in Sonoma and cruelly imprisoned him at Sutter’s Fort.  Señor Richardson at twilight had ridden to Mission Dolores especially to tell us that had happened, then immediately rode back to his big adobe on San Francisco Bay, where he said he was going straight to bed, so distressed he was by the news.   It was 1846, the middle of summer.   

An hour or so after Señor Richardson had ridden away, Padre Prudencio went to his bed after supper with pains in his stomach.   Magdalena and I joked with him that it was because he’d heard the bad news; though we suspected it was something he’d eaten.   Two hours later the pains were worse, and we thought it was influenza.  Another two hours and the fever had him sweating, and that kept Magdalena sitting beside him with a cool cloth on his forehead.   He was too uncomfortable to lie still and sleep.  It was nearly midnight when the padre began straining to make his breaths.  

That ended all my patience.  I spoke, not waiting any longer for Magdalena, who usually decided in these emergencies.  “We must go to San Rafael for Padre Mendez.  It’s foolish and dangerous to wait here any longer, expecting our padre to get better.  Señor Richardson I know will take us.”  

Magdalenda looked at me and I saw fear in her eyes, maybe the first time I had ever seen her with that much fear.  Like a whisper she said, “And leave the padre here without us?”  Then in only a moment more I saw the strength come back into her; she sat up straight and said, “You are right, we must go.   And there is only you and I to go.   Pilar and her sister can stay and give him water and keep him cool.  Till we return.  Señor Richardson will certainly help us.”

We departed, Magdalena and I both wearing cloaks with hoods, expecting fog and damp before the night was over.  The plank road had not yet been laid and we walked the well-worn trail among the sand dunes and the manzanita.  Already it was midnight.   We hurried and soon we came over the last slope and saw the water of the bay glimmering in the moonlight and saw among many lesser buildings on that beach Señor Richardson’s white-washed Casa Grande, the moonlight illuminating it especially there in all the darkness surrounding it.  

Magdalena and I knocked at the front door of his house.   While we waited we saw way out there westward an immense wall of fog from deep ocean sweeping over the headlands at the mouth of the bay.  The fog was drifting between the great gap in the headlands, drifting over the quiet water of the bay where it had already cloaked in white Señor Richardson’s docks in Sauzalito.  Fog had not advanced yet as far as Angel Island, or to our own cove at Yerba Buena, but soon would.  Only then did we both see, downslope and at the far left end of our cove, still free of fog, a lantern shining from the mainmast of Señor Richardson’s schooner Josephine, tied up at Broadway wharf.  We both said Hail Marys. 

Opening Richardson’s door, the Indio servant Paulina knew us and she brought us in quickly.  She told us that Señor Richardson was sleeping but Magdalena declared the urgency and Paulina went up and called into his room and woke the señor.

Moments later he came downstairs, still tying the belt of his robe.  Magdalena in English told him all the danger to Padre Prudencio at the mission.  Señor Richardson was nodding his agreement to help even before Magdalena told half of it.  She had grown up speaking Spanish and her native Indio language, but when Captain Richardson settled here ten years ago, she bothered him for lessons until he became fond of her and he taught her fluent English in only one summer of lessons.  So thereafter, as a token of their special bond, they always spoke English to each other.   As she and I also spoke only English, for our own equally sentimental reasons.

His sideburns grew to his jawline; he spoke a distinctive pronunciation of English that to my ears seemed elegant. He said, “Diego is on Josephine already.  He and I will be enough to sail her.”  He turned to me and said, “It must be extremely urgent if you left the mission on a night like this.  I thought you were never taking boat rides again?”

             If I hadn’t been so worried I would have laughed.  Because it had always been the routine for both Magdalena and me to do the mission’s business with Señor Richardson and his schooner Josephine.  He sometimes brought produce for the mission and helped us in other ways; so I’d been onboard the Josephine many times, but now only when we were docked.

  Apart from the Casa Grande in Yerba Buena, Señor Richardson also owned another house on the far side of the bay, accessible from Yerba Buena only with a boat, where he had his own harbor and docks that he called Sauzalito, notorious even to my sheltered ears.  It was said smugglers came and went there.  He owned it all, from a land grant that included Sauzalito all the way into the mill valley and all the slopes up the mountain Tamalpais, and even down to the beaches on the ocean side.  

Long ago he’d come here on a whaler and jumped ship and made a tent on the beach of Yerba Buena cove when not a soul lived here.   He was such a fine sailor that he was soon appointed Harbor Pilot by the Mexicans, and was also expected to teach the Indio boys to sail.  I had many times gone to watch them.  I dared only once to go out with them, and I swore I’d never go out again, so anxious and fretful I’d been the whole time.  Yet here I was, asking to go out again.  So it might have been funny, even to me; but tonight it wasn’t.

I said to him, “My only fear tonight is for the padre.   I’m so thankful you could do this for us.”

            “Nonsense, my dear,” he said cheerily, “he’s my padre too, don’t you know?  You see me go with Antonia and the children to Sunday services sometimes.  Not often, but sometimes.”

            Mercifully, Magdalena and I rode in the cart pulled by a horse and an Indio rider, down the well-worn trail to the wharf, while Señor Richardson rode his horse alongside us.  We were there in not many minutes, all of us watching all the while the big wall of fog moving further into the bay.  How long till it engulfed the Josephine?  Not long.   

            At the wharf, we climbed stairs to a landing and from there we stepped aboard his two-masted schooner.  Many of the sails were up, no wind ruffling them however.   Señor Richardson showed us to his deck cabin where there were cushions on the floor.  Also a big soft chair for Magdalena.  Two candles in holders beside the doorway lit everything in the cabin brightly.  There were little windows, but too dark outside to see anything.  

Señor Richardson put on his sailing cap and said, “Now I am Captain Richardson.  Wait here in the cabin, if you will, ladies, while all the sails are set and we get going.”

            Magdalena sat heavily, wearily on the soft chair and laid her head back into more cushions and sighed, “Now we will have a moment of rest, Valerian.  For a little while now at least God will have to make all the effort.”

            “I see that if He does make effort, it must be in the wind.  It seems the fog coming in so much has made the wind quiet down.  Will we have enough wind to get all the way to San Rafael?”

            Magdalenda groaned readjusting her posture in the chair.   “I foresee that the greater problem will be finding our way to the dock in this fog, down that long canal to the San Rafael mission.”

            I stepped to the window and looked out again.   I said to her, “I see that most of our sailing tonight will be with the fog all around us.”  We could hear them outside on the decks doing their work.  I said, “When we get going, like the captain says, I want to go out on deck and see everything.”  Oddly, those old fears of big water were strangely not present in me this moment.

            Magdalena had already closed her eyes.  She said, “I will rest now while I can.  My heart is beating like a tom-tom.  Where will it end?  Yes, you go out on deck and look.  That is as it should be.  I will stay here and say prayers for our padre and let the rest make me strong again, for when we get to the mission, for the walk up the hill.  I’m sure there will be no one there at the dock to meet us, so late it will be.”

            As pretty wisps of fog swirled for the first time round the schooner, Diego cast free of the moorings.  A sudden light breeze quickly filled the main sails, and just that easy was the ship drawn silently away from home port and away and into the becalmed, befogged San Francisco Bay.  

            I watched Magdalena’s tired face trying to sleep, saw the worry, saw the eyes moving behind eyelids.  Another contrary.  Me feeling strong, watching over my troubled, weary Magdalena.  

Because after my father brought me to Mission Dolores, I was the helpless one.  I continued refusing all consoling. I wouldn’t speak and wouldn’t leave the room I shared with Magdalena, who had been born at the mission in the year of its founding.  It was her pride to say she had been held in the hands of Padre Junipero Serra when he had blessed her as a newborn.  Her reputation made her a saint among the Indios, who said she could work miracles with humans of every kind, in various conditions of mortal stress.  Mortal stress mine had been.

Yet even in those first weeks at the mission, in the depths of my silent withdrawal to my bed, where I was waiting to die and rejoin my mother, I was aware that Magdalena often sat beside me, a dark-skin Indian, long hair going grey to her shoulders.  She sat beside me in a little chair, day after day, where she could reach out occasionally and set her hand on my shoulder or my back or my arm.  Eventually I allowed myself to feel warmth emanate from her hand into my body.  Until I began to anticipate it, began to want it, began at last to long for it.  One day she lay her hand on my shoulder and I couldn’t have stopped myself from the purring sound that escaped me.  It lasted barely long enough to notice.  But Magdalena noticed; probably she had been waiting for just that release from me.  She purred back.

            I purred again.  Release it was.  I began to let go.  At least I let go enough of my misery so that I could open my eyes and see what my new world might be.  It was Magdalena:  still sitting in her chair beside me, patiently waiting for me to wake up, her warm, life-giving hand on my body.

A few days after that incident, on an afternoon late in summer, surprising myself, I got out of my bed, suddenly arisen from my long dying, and I went outside.  I saw Magdalena weeding around our roses.  I went to her and kneeled beside her and began pulling weeds.  From where she kneeled, she turned to me and smiled, as if she’d been waiting for me only minutes, or as if she had been waiting forever.   

Now, so many years later, in another time of crisis, it was all turned around.  My Magdalena rested without peace in the cabin of the Josephine while I watched over her, as we sailed north through the fog, worrying about our padre.

            I went outside the cabin.  The captain was at the wheel, close by.  He smiled and waved.  Carefully I made my way toward him across the slippery deck.  I stood next to him and admired his command of the wheel, his fixed eye on the sea, ready for anything.  That moment, in ways I didn’t understand, I thought the captain perhaps a bigger man than the padre.  May God understand me.  I stood next to him and felt surprisingly confident of my weight against the flooring, confident even with the sway of the boat’s rhythms.  

            I said, “In the midst of all this worry, this night is so beautiful out here on the water.  I never imagined sailing could be like this.”

            “Oh my...” he said, letting all that draw out, as if it foretold a story too complex to be told.  Even so, I waited for him to finish.

            He said, “We are in the midst of far more danger than you know, my dear Señorita Valerian.  None of this night is at all as it seems.  The truth is, you and I are foolish to be out here tonight.  Many soldiers are out there in the countrysides, both to the right and to the left of us tonight, on both sides of the bay.   They are looking for each other.   The war for California is officially on.”

            This was a subject I always tried to avoid.   Sometimes Magdalena tried to talk to me about it —the war for California, the end of the mission, what we would do—but I didn’t like to talk about it.  Yet tonight I felt an unusual confidence in myself as I stood there on the deck beside the captain.  I dared to ask the obvious question, the one that feared me the most.

            “What exactly is going on in the countrysides around us, captain?  I daresay a person should know.”

            “I daresay.  A person should know—so he does not go where he should not go, so he does not go when he should not go.  Since you ask, I’ll tell you.”  This talk obviously amused him.  “In all the countrysides, all around this enormous north bay, the Californios and Americanos each have right now two hundred soldiers, more or less.   Fremont’s boys finished up their Bear Flag mess in Sonoma not many days ago as I told you tonight, and since then they have been looking for the soldiers of General Torre and Captain Manuel, who are at this moment separated, but who are trying to rejoin to oppose Fremont more effectively.  

.           “What you do not know, is that there was a battle two days ago, not far from our destination of San Rafael mission, at Olompali rancho.  I just heard news of it.  Fortunately, only one killed.  Torre’s soldiers escaped.  Fremont’s men are hunting them.  We may see soldiers at the mission.  Torre is hiding somewhere upcountry of where we are this moment.  Quite perilous for General Torre it appears.  I think he may be hiding in the mountain on the Nicasio grant.   But Fremont does seem to have him trapped, so that’s grim news.  To me it is.”      

            I had been right to fear this kind of information.   All of it troubled me deeply, in ways I didn’t comprehend.  I was glad he didn’t seem to want to talk more about it.  

            Through whitest mists of fog swirling and submerging us I could see the sails stretch full and feel our speed increasing.  The captain looked up too and said, “We’re lucky tonight, high tide is just in and will help us along the way to San Rafael.    And we’ll hope that little breeze stays with us.  Ojala.”  I walked carefully back to where I could look into the cabin below and I saw Magdalena, still sleeping.  Content, I went back to stand again beside the captain.    

            I’d been thinking over all those troop movements he’d been telling me about.  I said, “It seems like you know as much about this war as the soldiers fighting it.”

            He smiled at me.  “Perceptive, dear, perceptive.  I do seem to know, don’t I?  Well then…yes, I do have conversations now and again with some of these participants, yes I do.  Mostly on the Californio side of course.  General Torre is one of those.  I wish he and I were in better communication right now.  But, as I said, he is at the moment in dire straits.  Should Fremont be able to keep him away from Captain Manuel, it will greatly weaken the Californio’s chances.  Should Fremont find Torre and force a surrender and capture all Torre’s men, I’d say the Californio cause will be lost completely.  Yet it could happen tonight, and it could be happening somewhere out there even as we speak.”

            It made me feel brave to venture another bold question.  “Are you a spy then, captain?”

            He laughed.  “Oh we mustn’t use words like that, dear Valerian.  No, no.  Spies get shot or thrown into prisons.  That would not do when the cause is likely not to be won anyway, no matter how much soldiering and spying goes on.  Let’s just say I’m helping out friends.  Helping out friends in troubled times.”

            We kept moving along, just at the fore-edge of the wall of fog.  I could see we were gliding past the little island Alcatraz, rounding the right side of it, just as the fog bank moved upon it and over it.  Up ahead I could see the larger Angel Island, where the fog was already pushing onto it.  We seemed to be moving fast enough that I thought we might be alongside that island before the fog had completely covered it.  It was all so beautiful.  An odd thought—beautiful—when at the same time soldiers were out there, fighting, possibly dying.  Which did certainly confuse ande frighten me.  

All the while Señor Richardson and I talked, the mate Diego had been in the bow, pulling rope, tying something down, sometimes loosening or tightening the long triangular sails he called jibs, so that they could fill out one way, then swing back and fill out the other way.  I supposed he was trying to outmaneuver the head wind.  He did it all smoothly and efficiently.  Diego had been Captain Richardson’s best Indio sailing student, someone I had known at the mission my second year there.  After Diego had mastered sailing, Captain Richardson let him live on his boat.  When Diego saw I’d been watching him, he waved, remembering me, but kept working.   

The next time Diego reset the jib sails he tied them down and then hurried almost the length of the schooner to speak urgently in Spanish to his captain.  “The fog is too thick, I can hardly see the end of the bowsprit.  We have much room around us now, but soon we’ll be in the narrower channels and it would help if we had a lookout, up front.”

I saw the urgency of that.  I also saw that I was the obvious one to do that.  I was the only one available.  I surprised myself by speaking without hesitation to Captain Richardson.  “I can certainly do that, captain.  Show me where to stand and what I should be watching for.”

He smiled; he knew this was a bold step for me, simple as the task seemed.  “Well said, young woman.  Diego will show you where you might stand.  There is a rail to hold to, and you must hold to it.  Watch both right and left, watch for land in any form, watch for tree branches, attached or broken and floating, watch for boats, of any size, for even whalers wander this far up into the bay sometimes, even on a night like this…ah, especially on a night like this.  Watch for things afloat in water and anything to be seen above water.   All this, however, will be limited I’m sorry to say, since you will be able to see only a little ways into the fog.”    

I took a deep breath, pulled the hood closer to my face and the cloak more tightly to my body.  I followed Diego along the deck past the cabin where I could see Magdalena inside still mercifully sleeping.  We crossed more deck where I saw coils of rope, then around another smaller cabin and the fore-mast beside it.  We stopped in the bow.  Beyond that was only the long bowsprit and the ropes wrapped around it and going overhead to the jib sails.  I saw a net strung below the bowsprit, as if to catch someone who might fall.   I had to look away from that.

Diego saw  me studying all that and he smiled.  “Ready, Señorita de los Dolores?” he asked me in Spanish, using the old name he’d had for me at the mission back then.   That helped.  

In Spanish I replied.  “Yes, Diego, I’m ready.  You do the sails and I’ll stand at the bow and watch.”

After he’d changed the tack of the jib sails, he tied the ropes down and called over to me, “We should be coming alongside Angel Island right now.  Hopefully we haven’t gone too far right or left and we’ll keep well away from the island.   So be watching especially to the left.   I can’t believe on a night like this that we will meet other boats.”

I watched and watched.  I found myself leaning further ahead, then further, as if that might help me see better into fog, into darkness.  Always hold tight onto the rope.  I felt the chill breeze on my face as we moved relentlessly through the ghostly mists:  felt it on one side, then the other as we tacked.  It was wonderful.

From the wheel Captain Richardson called out.   “We’re doing well, Diego.  I just had a glimpse of land portside, we’re well away from it.  Good sailing.”

The late Moon rose into the night sky, but I had lost sight of it because of the fog.  Now however the Moon was at its highest and I could see a faint glow through the fog straight overhead.  I could also see a little further into the fog than before.   Still, no object passed anywhere within my view.  We sailed almost silently now, excepting only the lush sibilant whisper of water scudding away from the bow below me.

I was beginning to feel so useless in my task of watching that I began to be drowsy.  However, the moment I heard something—a voice!—out there in the fog ahead of us, I jerked myself out of my reverie.  Diego had stopped his motions with the ropes and was looking out there too.

Captain Richardson called ahead to us, “Hear anything?”

We both said, “Yes,” at once.

The captain said, “Keep a sharp eye out then.   Could be a boat.  Could be we’re near land.  I’ve been listening for the seals I always hear off the Brothers, to let me know I’m due east of the mission inlet.  But I haven’t heard them.  Now I’m worried I’ve gone off course a little and am a kilometer or two north of the inlet.  Keep a sharp watch now.”

  Hardly knowing it was myself doing it, I grabbed hold of the ropes that went up to the jib sails and I stepped on a shelf there in the bow and hoisted myself up and onto the very point of the bow.  There were ropes going overhead for me to hold onto with both hands.  I felt securely positioned.  I leaned a tentative foot out onto the fat end of the bowsprit, where it connected to the bow.  I could see the white caps of waves rushing away from the bow just below me.   I felt a flutter of fear; but holding the ropes made me confident.  I could hardly believe that it was me, doing such a daring thing.  Ah, but the fog and the little breeze in my face felt wonderful, and I felt suddenly very strong and capable.  I was the lookout.  Looking hard as I could into the fog, looking for everything.  For anything.

Then I heard another sound out there—a voice.  I called out in Spanish, “Who is there?”

I saw how fast we moved through the water.  I could imagine a person in a boat suddenly appearing.   Could imagine a collision.  I leaned as far forward as I dared and called out again, “Who is there?”  

Moments later I heard fragments of words spoken, hushed.  Then the louder voice, answering in Spanish.  “Friends.”

Captain Richardson called out to them in the same language. “We’re here.  Can you see us?  Go slowly.”   Then to us in English, “Hold—I know that voice.  It is old Don Berryessa.  Haul in sail, Diego.  Throw the old man a rope.  What in blazes is he doing out here so late at night?”

Then I could see it, passing within the fog and into my vision as a shadowy thing, a little boat rowing across our path from the right.  I could also see that we would not collide, since the little boat seemed to have stopped moving ahead and had curved back toward us, to come alongside.  I could see figures in the boat, two young ones at the rear, side by side, and the old man seated facing them at the bow end.  I saw a rope tossed toward them.  It landed in the water beside the boat and the old man reached out and took it and tied it quickly to something in the boat.  It seemed we also had almost stopped moving.

Captain Richardson had by now come to the bow.    He leaned out to see the boat Diego by his rope was pulling alongside us.  When the boat touched us, the older man stood up and looked smiling into the face of the captain, who said to him, “What are you doing so late at night way out here, Don Jose?”

The old man’s smile seemed to turn sly as he said, “I could ask you the same thing, Captain Richardson.”

Who replied:  “We are on a mission of mercy, an innocent story.  The good padre is ill at the mission and we are going for Friar Mendez at the San Rafael Mission.  What is your story, old man?”

Señor Berryessa said, “I believe you know my son was captured by the americanos and is in jail now at General Vallejo’s old hacienda near San Rafael.   I am going to see my son, and hope I can free him or help him.  I accompany these two, Francisco and Ramon, whom I know you also know”—the two younger I could see more clearly now as they looked up and smiled at the captain:   startling me, because they were the first twins I had ever seen; they were boys, soon to be twenty perhaps.   “Francisco and Ramon.  They have a mission of their own.”

The captain waved his greeting to the twins and then continued speaking to Don Jose.  “What kind of mission would that be?  It’s certain that Fremont’s men are all over this side of the bay.  They’re looking for General Torre and his soldiers.   I believe the general is hiding somewhere between here and Petaluma.”

Señor Berryessa said, “For the moment.  But hiding will not be enough.  He must be rescued.  The DeHaro boys whom I pilot over here have their own mission from Captain Manuel.   The boys come with a secret message for General Torre that says all available Mexican forces are attacking Vallejo’s hacienda in Sonoma immediately.”

The Captain said, “Dangerous.  Such messages can get intercepted.”

Señor Berryessa smiled more than before, saying, “We are hoping that will be the case, captain.  Ojala.  Then all Fremont’s men will go north to Sonoma and give General Torre time to escape and go south to Sauzalito, where he may then cross the bay to Yerba Buena and join forces with Captain Manuel in Santa Clara.”

The captain stopped smiling and shook his head.   “I think I see what’s coming here.   You were also going to see me in Sauzalito, weren’t you?  To ask me a favor?  Weren’t you?   About a boat?  Weren’t you?”

“That is the truth, captain.  I would have asked you if I were to find you in time.  Or General Torre would have asked you in Sauzalito when he gets there, if our plan works.”

The captain stopped looking at him and seemed to go inside himself for the moment; but finally turned back to Señor Berryessa.  “You know I want to do this for you.  You know that.  And you also know how absolutely dangerous this is for me.  So let it be this way:  if General Torre does indeed make it to Sauzalito in the next few days, he must simply let me know by messenger that he is arrived.  Then he must steal the boat from me.  It will be spoken that you simply overpowered me and took the Josephine for your own uses.   After he has crossed the bay, he will tie her up at that new dock I’ve constructed just beyond the Rincon Hill at Yerba Buena.”  

At that moment from behind us I heard Magdalena’s voice calling out.  “Wait.   Wait.  Is that you, Don Jose?  Is that your voice I am hearing?”  She was hurrying toward us, gripping her cloak tightly to her body, the hood keeping her face in shadow.  She stopped at the rail beside me and flung back her hood and looked out.

Seeing Magdalena, Don Jose’s eyes became merry and his smile was bigger.  “Doña Magdalena!  What are you doing here?  I suppose on the same mission of mercy.”

“An honorable excuse, at least.  But you?—do I hear you are being political again?”   But before he could answer she saw closer the other two and exclaimed, “Boys!  Boys!  Out in a boat at the devil’s hour?  You should be home in bed where your mother and father and sisters and brothers.   Francisco!  Ramon!  Are you here to watch over the old man?  Or is he here to watch over you two?”

Ramon spoke, ignoring Magdalena’s humor.  “The war has come to us, doña, and we must not be afraid to fight for our country.   In whatever way we can.  We have joined Captain Manuel and we will go all the way to Los Angeles with him to win back our country.”

His brother confirmed it. “Ramon speaks the truth and the same for me, dear doña.”  But then he smiled to say, “When we return I will tell all the family we saw you in such strange circumstances.”

Señor Berryessa spoke again to the captain.  “So you are going to the San Rafael mission?  How is it then, that you, the finest pilot on the bay, have missed Point San Quentin and have drifted two or three kilometers north of it?”   He laughed.  “I think we have time, captain, for me and the boys to pilot you back to the canal.  My old eyes can see into the fog, I tell you, even as bad as this.   Though it looks like we have suddenly passed out from under its cloud.”

It was sudden: we had drifted clear of the fog and now could see dark night and the stars and the Moon distinctly.  I could even see a shoreline far off ahead of us toward the left.

Captain Richardson saw it too.  “San Pedro Point—my lord!  I have come two kilometers too far.   And it is a good joke, Don Jose, your offer to pilot me.  But since I am here, you three could come aboard and we can sail right to the Point and set you all down, all rested.  And ready to deliver your message.”

Señor Berryessa frowned.  “No, it must be only the three.  It is dangerous for you to be with us.  Even for a short time like this. You have your own mission, and I have delayed you in it already.  Go—see to the padre.  May it go well with you.”  Barely allowing time for farewells, Don Jose Berryessa reached out a hand and pushed off from our schooner.  He sat down and the twins took up their oars again and began rowing toward the far shoreline that for the moment was free of fog.

            We all four lingered there at the rail watching them move away from us.  A heavy emotion was in me and I saw it was so with the others:  all of us there watching them disappear into the night.  Until I heard the captain sigh and go back along the deck to his place at the wheel.  As he went he said to Diego, “Full sail downwind this will be.  Set sail and we go.”

I stayed at the bow and Magdalena remained beside me.   The schooner turned slowly but decisively about as the sails flapped and Diego maneuvered with the ropes at the main sails.  Then I felt the wind take hold in the big sails and I felt the schooner lurch ahead, causing both of us to grip tight to the bow rail.  It was thrilling!

Quickly we were back in the fog and seemed to be gaining speed, more speed than anytime coming north.  Yet we could not have gone far when I heard voices again, this time from the shore.  Different voices.  I heard English.

So did Captain Richardson.  He yelled forward to us, “Hang on, we’re turning to starboard.   I don’t like what I’m hearing.”

As we neared the shore I could see that we were also near the edge of the fog bank again.  It seemed like the captain was purposely doing this, aiming for the shoreline where the fog was still dense enough to hide us, but where we could still see the shoreline distinctly in the moonlight well beyond the fog.  Captain Richardson dropped anchor there.  We all stood at the bow rail, leaning ahead for a better look through the fringe of fog at the place on the beach where the voices seemed to be.  A moment later I saw something move among the trees near the shore.  Then another something.   And more English words spoken.

To my sudden horror I also saw gliding silently, oars pulled up inside, the same rowboat that had moments before been alongside us, with the same passengers, Don Jose and Francisco and Ramon.  Coming from somewhere I had not noticed, and aiming to land directly on the beach where the americanos were.  Magdalena when she saw the same gasped, and began whispering Hail, Marys to herself.

Only the captain spoke.  “I don’t like this.”

Nor did I.  

The twins climbed out and pulled the rowboat up the shore away from the waves and Don Jose walked beside them.  When they stopped and let go the rope, the old man and the two boys were immediately surrounded by eight men, all with pistols or rifles.  There were shouts and cursing.  Then I could hear Senor Berryessa say in Spanish he was going to his son in the Sonoma jail.   He said they knew it was true, for one of the men pointing a gun at him had been in the party of his son’s capture.    The soldiers turned to the twins.   One man, the shortest of all, came forward and spoke a few words in Spanish that I couldn’t understand.  Then he made them go down on their knees while he searched their serapes and pants and even their shoes.  

Astonishing me, the short americano pulled a white paper from one of the boy’s shoe and held the paper up for the others to see.   Then he read it silently.  He turned to the others.  “Well, well.  Looks like we’re going to get a little action after all.  Hold your guns on these three while I go show this to Major Fremont.”

I heard Captain Richardson whisper, as if to himself, “That’s that damned Kit Carson.”

Sooner than I’d expected, the short one, Carson, reappeared.  With him, in a blue army jacket with gold braid, the man who must have been the notorious John Charles Fremont, wearing a red sash around his waist.  Señor Richardson always when he spoke of him, said it in French, flamboyante.  His hair was long, black and curly.  It seemed like all his soldiers were afraid of him.  Fremont went to the prisoners; he spoke a few words I couldn’t hear.  He walked away and read the message carefully.   He came back and stared down at the two boys.  He spoke a quiet question to Don Berryessa.  Then Fremont turned to his own men and said what we could easily hear:   “Our plans are changed.  There’s to be an attack at Sonoma.  No doubt General Torre is moving that direction even now.  So be it.   This is what I’ve been hoping for—a good fight.  So all of you—mount up!  To Sonoma we ride!”

Some cheered and waved their guns in the air.   Then Kit Carson spoke to Fremont, “What about the prisoners?”

Fremont turned defiantly toward Carson.  He spoke scornfully.  “These men are the enemy!   I have no room for prisoners, lieutenant!  Take care of them!”  Fremont turned and walked back the way he’d come, this time without Carson’s escort, until Fremont disappeared into the trees. 

Nobody around Carson said anything.  Most of them had their eyes and guns on the three prisoners, two still kneeling and the old man standing beside them.  I could hear the old man pleading.  

Carson raised his pistol to fire, but hesitated and then lowered it.  My heart seemed to stop beating.  Carson turned away from the prisoners and the others and while he walked in a little circle.   He might have been talking to himself.   Then suddenly he whirled around and with two quick blasts from his gun killed both Francisco and Ramon where they kneeled.  The old man screamed out and threw himself upon the two boys, even as the old man was shot in the back and killed with the third bullet from Kit Carson’s gun.  

The suddenly increasing, exploding horror of these three deaths for one timeless moment stunned Captain Richardson and me into a profoundest silence.  Yet even as the third body fell, a cry of greatest horror and anguish arose out of Magdalena standing next to me:  I could feel the unearthly force of it, a cry of grief great enough to have come from all the Indios and Mexicans ever dispossessed.  Then on the other side of me I heard Señor Richardson make his own mournful groan that betokened great grief laying full weight now upon him too.

Seeing these terrifying deaths, I suddenly felt so light-headed that I thought I would collapse and lose consciousness.  For that instant I could not have uttered a cry or spoken a word, anymore than I could have moved a muscle of my body.  In the midst of that timeless moment, staring in shock and horror at the beach where the three bodies still lay, my own cry of grief was for that instant suspended in silence inside me.  

I saw the soldiers take off the serapes of all three dead men.  They argued.   When they heard the wailing of Magdalena, they stopped and looked into the fog, but could not possibly have seen us.   

“Soldiers,” Carson said, “mount up and ride—now!  I don’t know if that was a cry from hell or some new bunch of Mexicans, but we ain’t got no time for anything new.   Fremont wants every soldier here out of these valleys and north to Sonoma this damn minute. Let’s go!”  

As I witnessed this hurried scene in that timeless moment, my grief-stricken soul seemed to be waiting a split second, hoping to see all this horror miraculously reverse and never have been.  Of course that did not happen.  My own cry of agony then at last broke out of me and added to the grief of my two companions.  We were the wailing of a death-ship.

As I cried out, I turned to see Magdalena, still pitched fully into her mournful screams:  yet suddenly her face went from grief and outrage to astonishment:   she grabbed at her heart with both hands and raised up on her toes.  I knew some terrible thing had hold of her, as terrible as the scene she’d just witnessed.   Her face muscles strained with the fatal force inside her; her eyes clinched shut against this terrible power.   Then I knew it had her.  All her face muscles suddenly relaxed and her eyes drooped and closed and she collapsed onto the deck.  I knew she was dead.

But I lied to myself.  I lay my ear on her chest and listened for heartbeat, felt for pulse in her wrist.  I was sure I felt flutters of life.  Captain Richardson quickly went behind her and picked her up and wrapped his long arms around her chest, across her lungs, and he suddenly crushed her in his arms and jolted her that way again and again.  But nothing revived her.

I said, “To San Rafael—now—please, captain!   We’ll keep her alive till then.   Padre Mendez will know what to do.”   But I knew she was dead.  I was blind with the grief, so much grief.  “Please go now!”

Captain Richardson laid an arm around my shoulder for consolation, though I could see in his own face that his grief was as great as mine—for how he had loved Magdalena!  And the two boys and the old man!  Yet he must pilot us on and ignore all these deaths and so much heartbreak.

I wanted Magdalena to remain in the open air, so the three of us made a soft place on the wooden deck to lay her and I sat next to her.   We were going downwind in the fog and it was smooth.  The captain found Point San Quentin and we navigated through the narrow channel that goes so close to the mission and he found the dock easily.  He tied up.  I did not want to leave Magdalena so the captain went alone, a ten minute walk up the hill.  Diego waited with me.

While I waited beside Magdalena in the dark, I lay beside her and pressed my body into her.  Wanting her to know I was there.  Wanting myself to know she was there.  I prayed into myself:  I prayed into her body:  that she not leave us.  Yet as cold fog covered us like a shroud, I knew she was dead.

Faster than I expected the captain was back at the boat with the good Padre Mendez, who had been doctoring at the mission since it was only an asistencia hospital for all the missions.  He was frail, much older than he looked.  When he came to me I did not greet him but only stood up and pointed to Magdalena and said, “Make a miracle, padre.”

He looked in Magdalena’s eyes, listened to her heart and looked for breathing.  He said to me simply, tenderly, “She is gone, dear Valerian.”

Though I knew Death had her and I had known it all along, only now did the released weight of it sink me to my knees, and I buckled over and fell on top of her, crying into her cloak.  They allowed me this for how long I don’t know.  The crying, the grief, all over again, over and over again.

Señor Richardson all the while was there beside me, an arm around my shoulder.   Finally he said, “We will take Magdalena home with us.  And there also we must deliver Padre Mendez, on the pronto, to save our own Padre Prudencio.”

I knew that too.  

I lay down with my head on Magdalena’s shoulder and let myself flow, both tears and spirit, into her.  Flow through her and into the wood of the deck and the rest of the boat, flow on until the boat was filled and then flow on into the ocean until it too was filled.  And then I felt that would be the end and it would be enough.  

It was not enough.  As we sailed through the night of fog, where the night was both black and white, I lay with death with eyes closed and saw neither night nor the fog.   As we sailed, of a certainty I filled the boat and the ocean with my sorrow, yet I lived and ached still.  And how would this ever change?  

As we sailed through the night of fog, staring as deeply into my own internal void as I had ever done, even at my mother’s death:   disembodied voices began to speak to me.   They first seemed faraway, hushed voices, speaking over each other in confusion, not familiar, and too fast to understand; voices questioning, pleading, all of them crowding onto me, as if they wanted my attention.  There were too many.  

Until I heard one unique voice emerging out of the clamor so deep inside me:  vibrating perfectly with my own spirit and speaking with perfect clarity.  I have come to help you.  I am Saint Francis.  And you will help me.  You must go back to the mission.  

Lost to the world as I was, in the void as I was, still I knew it was Saint Francis.  His was a presence I’d felt inside his mission many times, though he had never before now spoken to me in his silent voice, only with Magdalena.   Reluctantly I replied.  I wish not to go back. I wish only to die here with Magdalena. Yet St. Francis’ words were powerfully moving meI spoke my own silent words to him.  But I will go back, since you ask it of me.   For the padre. 

 Saint Francis said, No, that’s not why you must go back.   Magdalena is gone.  Now it must be you.  But I will be there beside you always.  I also tell you the padre is not dying.   He’s recovered.  He’s watching out the bell tower for you right now.  He’s well.  You may see for yourself if you wish.  Do you wish it?

Hardly knowing what I meant, I said, Yes I do.

Instantly, in my mind’s eye I saw the image Saint Francis had foretold, saw it vividly:  dear Padre Prudencio leaning out the bell tower, dark night all around him.   But now energetic.  Anxious.  Looking out.   Not yet knowing that a terrible agony awaited him.  

I said to Saint Francis, I will go back. For you.  And to help the padre endure this suffering we bring him.  But I will never leave the mission again.  I will never go back outside those walls.




  It was in those first months of 1847, while the Fremont scandal was the big news, that the name of the pueblo on San Francisco Bay was officially changed from Yerba Buena to San Francisco.  A lot of the old timers complained, but not me.  I had a feeling about this place, but not the same feeling that Bill Sherman had.  Comparing it to the sophisticated world of the Californios in Monterey, San Francisco was all rough, raw edges and proud of it.   But even so I had a feeling about it, whenever I looked out at that beautiful bay and saw how it opened out between the headlands and into the immense ocean that went all the way to the mysterious orient.  It seemed that there just had to be an amazing destiny played out here.  In my playful imagination I thought I could see in this exotic end of the world the most elegant of coy, slumbering courtesans, veiled so seductively beneath the cool fogs of summer.  To me, she was just waiting for her awakener.   

            Well, for all that–the name Yerba Buena just wouldn’t do.

            All that said, I remember the first summer afternoon in 1847 I rode up from Monterey with Mr. Larkin, and after all I’d thought and imagined so long about this place–call it Yerba Buena or San Francisco–it was a major disappointment.  

                 There were maybe thirty buildings, even though most of them were more shacks than anything I would have called a building.  Of course, everyone had a beach view, which was the only positive I could see.  The streets had no names, and they were really only pathways worn in the dirt between the structures.  No sidewalks and in the rainy months they laid out wood planks, but that didn’t help much—it was all just one swampy mess.  John Henry Brown had a pathetic, misshapen one-story adobe called City Hotel, where he rented out five or six rooms on one side of the square.  Jean Vioget had an even dumpier four-room place a few doors down.  There were four or five other little one and two room adobes on the opposite side of the square, a little dry goods store, a tinker’s shop and a saloon.  

 When the Mormons came, late 1846, they doubled the population, up to about 500 or so.   Their leader Sam Brannan set up his printing press and newspaper, The Star, the first one published in San Francisco, in an abandoned adobe on the north side of the square.  Next to him was Richardson’s big place, which everyone called Casa Grande, even though it too was adobe, and not really grand.  It was not quite as big as Larkin’s house, but it was two stories and bigger than Brown’s City Hotel.  Aside from the Mormons, Richardson was the town’s only entrepreneur and was regarded as the unofficial mayor and official Harbor Pilot for all the vast San Francisco Bay, whose tides and soundings he knew better than anyone.  

            The rest of what you would call buildings in what was then Yerba Buena, on this windy, foggy stretch of sand dunes-by-the-bay, were tarpaper shacks a good breeze would blow over.  And that was about it.  The municipal center of town was the hardpack square block one street up from the beach.   It had a one room adobe in the center of it that was used mostly as a jail; later it became the Customs House.   It became Bill Sherman’s office eventually.  There was an American flag flying from a flagpole in the yard that Commodore Montgomery had planted last fall.  Next to the jail was another one room adobe with a tile roof they used as a barracks for the three or four soldiers who were expected to keep the peace, which was the easiest job in town.  

            Yes, it was a disappointing sight for me.  But by then I was three thousand miles from home, and definitely too committed to do anything but stay put and see what happened.  Which at that point seemed like maybe, after all, it wouldn’t be much

            The work I did with Governor Mason and Lieutenant Sherman, helping to create the legal machinery that would make this primitive place into something civilized, something that could eventually take its place among the other states of the Union.  It was like trying to remake a ridiculously uncouth but beautiful savage, very quickly, into something sophisticated enough that she could be presented at a proper debutante ball to all the other socialites, who were her sister states.           

            That sounds exotic and fine, but as I struggled with paperwork in Monterey and then made my occasional trips north to Frisco, I could see how much grime and hayseed had to be removed from this incredibly primitive darling before we could even start to think about putting on rouge.  And I was also seeing that one desk job was just like another, whether it was in sophisticated New York, Washington or in the California outback.

            But that one gorgeous spring-like day late in February, 1848, it did become, suddenly, very interesting.  Lansford Hastings, another lawyer, had sent me word the week before that something “spectacular” was happening and he wanted me to meet him and a few others in Brown’s hotel in the back room.  

            He wouldn’t say what it was about, but he was crafty and usually one or two steps ahead of everybody and everything, and I will admit I admired him a lot.  He was tough as they come.  He’d ridden through the Rocky Mountains with Jim Bridger and the other mountain men, all of whom were legends when I was just a boy back east.  The twist is that Lansford was also well-educated, had a very seductive way with words, spoken and written, a slicker lawyer than most, and I’m sure he’d left a trail of broken hearts wherever he went.  

Me, I go blindly where the action is, or wherever I think it will be, search always for tantalizing signs of the elusive, hoped-for the truly wild west I’d dreamed about sitting behind my desk in New York City.  So I wasn’t going to miss that meeting, on the off-chance that something truly exciting might even yet be about to happen here.

             John Henry Brown was there, which I’d expected, and I wasn’t surprised to see his crony, Robert Parker, too, because they were old timers and they were in on everything.  It was these two, primarily, who had pushed so hard to make gambling legal, over the very formidable protests of the newly-arrived and very sizeable Mormon community.

            So I was surprised to see Sam Brannan there also, the leader of the Mormons, with a kid I had never seen.  George Hyde was the other unlikely conspirator.  He’d been alcalde of the pueblo for several months, despite the fact that Brannan and other leading citizens were calling for his resignation on the grounds that he was criminally altering property deeds and consorting with and accepting bribes from known gamblers.  Still, many reputable citizens thought highly of George, and one of them was Governor Mason, who was siding with him in the current investigation of his alleged misconduct.  And finally, of course, Lansford was there.

            The six of them were sitting far more sociably than I could have imagined at a round table in a back room that Brown sometimes used for poker and black jack.   Lansford and Parker were smoking cigars, John Henry–JH to the old-timers–was drinking straight bourbon, his daily routine.  Hyde was leaning back in his chair confidently, his feet up on the table like he owned the place, the way he thought he owned the town.  Sam Brannan was sitting straight as a stick in his chair, feet firmly on the floor, looking at me as I entered with what I could only think of as an oddly devilish grin.  The boy beside him was staring at the floor and looking very out of place among this jaded crew.

            “OK,” said Lansford, standing up to greet me, sticking out his manicured, aristocratic hand, “now all the lords of empire are assembled and we can begin.  I was starting to doubt you’d have the savvy to show up, Sonny.”

            “My curiosity overcame me,” I said.  “I’ve been working night and day in that damn office and with the deadlines I’m facing I should still be there.  But I knew–if you’d put off starting on your trip to Oregon for this–it had to be something unusual.  So I’ve been asking myself—why did you call it spectacular?”

            “Sit down, Sonny,” said Parker.  “The spectacular part will only take a couple seconds, but it might knock you over if you’re standin’.  But there’s a lot we have to talk about once you get the idea.”   

            Obviously, they knew how to grab my attention.  I sat down in the one unoccupied seat and looked over at Sam Brannan.   “Nice to see you, Sam.”  He returned my greeting with a broad, gracious smile.  I asked, “What brings you into this den of thieves?  And who’s your compadre here?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him around town.”

            I’d always felt particularly drawn to Sam, his Mormonism aside.  I recognized the angel struggling to tame the demon inside him, the way I felt those two contraries wrestling inside me.   “Well, Sonny, you definitely called it right, it is a den of thieves.  But it’s a special day, like Parker said, and sometimes the circumstances are so strange that you find yourself bedding down with folks you weren’t expecting.  Not that I’m saying I’m bedding down with any of these characters exactly, but, as I’m about to explain, something bizarre has happened.   Lansford might call it spectacular–and that’s right too–but the fact is that before the word spreads too far I think it’s a good idea for a few of us, the ones here present, to have a little talk among ourselves and see if we can’t come up with some basic ground rules before it all becomes so wild and crazy that there’ll be no controlling anything.  Oh yes, by the way, this here young man is Alondous Buckland.   We call him Buck.  He’s one of the brethren, one of my most trusted.   Actually, it’s because of Buck that we’re all here, or at least it’s because of something Buck told me a few weeks ago.  That’s why we’re here.”

            It was only then that the boy, Buck, finally looked up and glanced quickly around the table, his eyes passing vaguely across all our faces.  Then a little smile parted his lips, and he turned his eyes toward the only window in the room.  But the smile remained.

            Sam Brannan then set on the table before me a red handkerchief that enclosed something that could have been held in a fist.  “No need to prolong the mystery, Sonny–this is it.”  And he drew a small glass jar from the handkerchief and handed it to me.  I could see that inside the jar was a single chunk of gold that might have weighed an ounce.   Gold, a good sized nugget.  but who hadn’t seen a nugget sometime in their lives?   

            “So what?” I finally said.  “I hope there’s something more to it than this chunk of gold.”

            JH said, “Yes, Sonny-boy, there’s a whole lot more to it than this.  Maybe fifty-sixty tons more of it than this.”

            I waited a moment more for some inner revelation to give true weight to his words.  It still didn’t make sense–tons of gold.  I guess I kept looking stupid, because Lansford finally said, “Sonny, John Marshall and some of the Mormon boys have discovered gold up at the saw mill that Marshall’s building for John Sutter.  And not just a little–probably more than anyone’s ever seen– at least around here.  They’ve been mining it in secret for several weeks now, but the word is leaking out, and the truth is, they’re finding bigger and bigger pockets and veins every day, even a mile or two away from the original discovery.  It’s only a matter of time–a week or two, maybe less–before everybody in the goddamn world west of the Rockies and north and south of the equator is going to know about this.   In a few month’s time there’s going to be ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred thousand people maybe, swarming all over the hills between the bay here and the peaks of the Snowy Mountains, digging for this stuff.  And believe me, Sonny, they will all find plenty of it.  Sam and his friend Buck have shown me conclusively that it’s there in monumental abundance, probably in every stream that comes out of the Sierra foothills for a hundred miles.  Our little quiet world here is going to be turned upside down faster than you can get back to Monterey and tell General Mason that you’ve got another job.”

            Of course I was speechless.  And not because I didn’t have a dozen questions jumping around inside my head that all needed to be answered at the same time.  As I looked around the table I could see that every one of these very serious, no nonsense, seen-it-all, hard-headed men were staring coldly and resolutely at me, as if they were waiting for me to dispute what Lansford and Brannan were saying.    And for a very long time not only was I silent, but they all were too. And why not?  If all this was indeed true, as every additional minute of silence seemed to testify, then what in the name of God or the Devil could anyone say?  

            But eventually one thing did keep echoing in my head after all the profundity of their discovery had settled like a huge lead–or should I say gold?–weight in my head.  And I said to Lansford, “What did you mean by that last remark–Telling General Mason I have another job–?”

            Lansford blew a smoke ring and held his cigar out like he was delivering a particularly devastating remark to a jury.  “Because, my dear confederate, we need your help.  We are going to reorganize the business and financial foundations of San Francisco, in every department imaginable, so that we, the lucky gang of thieves here assembled, will be able to harvest, in the most efficient manner possible, and each with his own skillful expertise, the millions and billions of dollars worth of gold that all these hundreds of thousands of worker bees from around the world will be gathering for us in the months and years to come.  Your particular expertise is of course your clever legal brain.  And your loyalty to us.  Parker and JH will control the gambling concerns.  Sam and his brethren, who stand always with the Lord and who would never stain hands or reputations with anything sordid, will control the mercantile world.  They will provide the tools, the clothing, the food and everything else that will be so plentifully needed by all these worker bees.  Our friend George Hyde here will be the local political genius who will see to it that we are all given more or less exclusive, relatively monopolistic rights to operate.  It will be my job to develop and provide real estate properties, and establish communities between here and the Sierra foothills for these miners and immigrants to live.  And you, Sonny, will, and must, be our legal antenna.   You will keep us informed.   You have the ear and confidence of both Consul Larkin and Governor Mason.  You can make sure we’re always on the right legal side of every issue, and also–not least of all–to make sure that we have advance notice of any move that government might be making that would either further or jeopardize our collective efforts.   I know you can see it, Sonny.  We can all, within a very few months, be very rich men.  And I know you can also see, Sonny, that if we don’t do this, someone else will.  And just the fact that we’re here, the seven of us, at just this fortuitous moment, means that we are the destined ones.”

            Yes, my mind was racing with all this astonishing information.  There seemed no doubt Lansford was right.   Given the facts as they appeared, that the men in this room were indeed in a position to create this new world in just about whatever shape they wanted.  

            My next realization, so very personal, was that I was face to face for the first time with the truly wild west of my dreams.  Here suddenly was the wild west jungle beckoning–a world that would be truly wild and fabulous, that would be extravagant beyond imagination, that would overwhelm the boundaries of anything that could be prepared for, that would be a flood that would overrun the senses as well as the sense of everyone who stood in its way, which would be all of us.  

            After another long silence I turned to Sam and said, “I thought you were taking all the brethren to Salt Lake City.”

            Sam smiled ever so slightly.  “I don’t think so, Sonny.  I haven’t seen you since I got back last fall, but it didn’t go so well with Brother Brigham.  I rode out there last spring, me and Buck and some others.  Brigham’s committed to the Great Salt Lake.  ‘Desolation Basin’ I call it.  I spent three weeks there trying to convince him that San Francisco at least deserved to be a second community of Saints, that we had established a very strong base here, that we had no enemies, that there is a prosperity possible here that will never be possible in that barren desert he’s so enchanted with.  But he’s immovable, and in his own way maybe he’s right.  The Salt Lake basin is so absolutely hostile to life that likely no settlers will ever come within a hundred miles of it, which is exactly what he’s hoping.   San Francisco frightens him–he understands that eventually, no matter how many of the brethren settle here, there’ll be even more gentiles.  And he’ll never risk that again, being in the minority.  Not after Nauvoo.  And Missouri.”

            “So what does that mean for you, Sam?  I’ve heard most of your Mormon brothers have packed up and moved out.”

            “You heard right,” Sam said, relaxing and leaning back for the first time in his chair.  At this, young Buck turned his attention from the window to Brannan, who continued speaking, “Most are leaving.  But not all.   I for one am staying.”

            “Me too,” said Buck in a soft voice.

            Sam continued, “There are maybe twenty or thirty of us that have decided to stay in California.”

            “Even though we may burn in hell for it,” Buck added, his true voice emerging, the subtle smile reappearing at his mouth.

            “Yes,” Sam said, “Brother Buck speaks the truth.  Brigham has spoken ex-communication against the ones who refuse to go to Salt Lake.  So be it.”

            And Buck echoed, “Yes, so be it.”

            I said, “It seems like a big jump to me, Sam, from harvesting souls for the brotherhood to harvesting gold from–what did you call it?–the worker bees?”

            Sam laughed, a rare moment with him in my experience.  Then he said, “We all like to make a good living, Sonny, even Brother Brigham.  He has his own fabulous harvest in Salt Lake, perhaps more plentiful than the dreams we’re hatching.  He’s only had to decree the ten percent once, and from then on it’s delivered to him, from every loyal brother and sister, without having to move off his big chair, month after month, year after year, ten percent of everything everyone of them earns.   As long as he lives and as long as they live.”

            “Brilliantly spoken, Brother Brannan,” chortled Buck.

            “Oh no,” enthused Brannan.    “The brilliance is all Brigham’s, Brother Buckland.” 

            “OK,” I said, also settling back in my chair, “so that’s your end of it.  But what about you, George?  The last time I saw you, you and Sam were ready to fight a duel.”

            “Oh shit,” grinned the unsinkable alcalde, “there was never gonna be no duel, Sonny.   Sam was just givin’ me a bit too much of a hard time in his newspaper and I had to let him know it.  But hell!–we straightened that out a while back, and we’re gonna stay in this thing together from here on, like old friends.”

            “That’s a huge stretch of the truth,” Brannan said to Hyde coldly.   “Everything I wrote about you is true and I can prove it, and you know it.  You’re just lucky as blazes that for the time being you got Mason and a few others fooled.  But right now I don’t give a darn about all that.  I had my say in the paper and I stand by every word I said.  Your time will come–there are enough people on your trail now that I don’t have to bother with you anymore.  The only reason you and I are in this room together today is because we’ve got to establish our monopoly right now, without wasting another minute.  And you’ve probably got enough life left in you as alcalde to help me and the rest in the town council get all these temporary laws passed that’ll keep everyone else out of our business until it’s too late.  We’re fortunate we also have Bob Parker here on the city council, and Brother Glover as well, who’ll do whatever I tell him”

            “Spoken like a man after my own heart, Sam,” spoke Alcalde Hyde, who was enjoying this tremendously, aspersions and all.  “Hearing you talk like that I can’t imagine how you could ever have thought we weren’t always in cahoots.  Hell, if you’da been more honest with me before, like you are now, I mighta considered becomin’ one of the brethren myself.”

            “Don’t believe any of it, George,” replied Brannan, staring coldly, but still supremely unruffled.  “You’re a crook and most everyone knows it.  But we’re talking another business right now and, like I said, your time will come and I’ve done all I need do to help it along.  As long as Sonny agrees to help us draw up all the legal documents and everyone knows his part and gets his share, then it’s done and I don’t have to think about you at all.”

            I should have been happy as hell to be included in this, and there was no doubt that cynical half of me was ready to sign with gusto.  But something else inside me was squirming and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  I have my ideals, but I’m certainly no church-boy–hell, I’m a lawyer, I’ve devised contracts that would make the devil himself blush.  The more I sat there listening to them, and at the same time listening to my insides trying to tell me something, all I could figure out was that, bored as I was at that desk job in Monterey, there was something about it that I truly, deeply gratifying.  That job also had to do with the wild west, with taming it, trying to mold something new, creating a state that could be close to the ideal, perfect state, like none other that had existed. Which might, if we did it right, serve as a model for all the other states that would become a part of this United States.  I was proud of that ideal, and my part in it.   And I thoroughly enjoyed working with Mason and Sherman.  And I deeply respected them.

            Or, these pirates were saying, and my devil was agreeing, come join the crew, matey, you come along with us on the ride of your life, and make a few million bucks while you’re at it.  I heard all that, very persuasive, even seductive.  But I hesitated.   And couldn’t quite, that moment, figure why. 

As if he were reading my mind, Robert Parker, entrepreneur extraordinaire, said, “You don’t have to quit your job in Monterey, Sonny.  Lansford was just stretchin’ it a little .   In fact, all of us here think you should stay just where you are.  That part of it couldn’t be better.  What we need from you, is for you to draw up some legal papers that make what we’re doin’, the ones of us here, legal and binding, and which’ll also make each of our little businesses monopolies, in so far as that’s possible.  That will also help keep any of the hundred thousand immigrants who’ll soon be swarmin’ around here from thinkin’ we’re gonna let them get any piece of our action.  That would be the biggest disgrace.  We all realize that eventually, these contracts, so t’speak, will be challenged and prob’ly thrown out.  But that’ll take time, and during that time we’ll’ve been able to take a hold here that’ll make us all very rich, and very hard to get rid of.”

            “I couldn’t have said it more eloquently,” Lansford said, settling his warm hand on my shoulder.  “I’m probably the only one here who understands why you aren’t going to just jump right in the boat with us immediately.  I know you’re going to torment yourself a day or two with this, and let that little angel who’s always sitting on your shoulder try to keep you from having a good time.  But listen to me, Sonny, you and I have been damn good friends for a long time, and you know I wouldn’t give you bad counsel.  Tell this to your angel–this is the opportunity of a lifetime, you’re going to have more fun than you’ve ever had in your life, and I don’t want you getting soft on me now.  We need you, amigo.

            “I really don’t see why,” I said finally, believing myself.  “You’re a lawyer, Lansford.  In fact you’ve been at it longer than I have.  You could do all of this yourself.” 

            “Not really, Sonny,” he said, squeezing my shoulder with his lingering hand.   “I’m going to be an intimate part of this partnership, and we need someone who’s at least to appearances outside the partnership to represent us.  And don’t forget, the most important part of it, you’re the Man, because Mason and Larkin tell you everything.”

            “And in absolute confidence,” I added, realizing finally that this was also what troubled me about their proposition.  “I admire both those men.  And I believe, very much, in the good work they’re doing.”

            Lansford leaned closer, looking deeply and devilishly into my eyes.   “We’re not asking you not to keep on doing the good work you’re doing with them–fucking god forbid!  Keep up the good work, yes, by all means.   Your duty first and foremost.  All we’re asking is that you tell us, every once and a little while, what’s up–you know, whatever little thing that would be valuable for us to know.”

            Given the grandiose drama they’d portrayed for me and the great part assigned me, I knew my excuse sounded feeble.  “You fellas ever heard of conflict of interest?”

            “Hell!” Robert Parker shouted, smacking his hand down on the table and nearly spilling John Henry’s bourbon.  “Life is a goddamned conflict of interest, Sonny!  That’s the sorriest damn thing I ever heard outta your mouth!”  He jerked his great bulk out of his seat, betraying exasperation, and walked toward the window and stood looking outside a moment.  

            When he turned back to face me he was again wearing his usual ingratiating smile, suddenly again supremely cordial, confident, calm.  “How do you like the new hotel me and JH are putting up here on the plaza, Sonny?”

            “Impressive,” I said.  “How long’s it going to take to finish–two, three months?”

            He beamed.  “Two, three weeks, my friend, not a day longer.   I ain’t got time to fart around when all that money’s gonna be rollin’ into town.  I got sixty men workin’ overtime, damn near. Yea, it’s gonna be a warm happy place this winter for all them carefree rich miners to come to, have a good time, kiss the girls, and spend that gold.  I’m callin’ it Parker House, of course.  Then he turned on me a powerful face, and spoke, as if to a backward nephew.  “Five percent of the take could be yours, you god-damned ice-brain!  Think of it, five percent of everything all of us make.  I’m tellin’ you—if we don’t lock this down right now, we’ll be leavin’ the door open for all them dirty foreigners to come in here and take it all away from us real Americans.  We just gonna give it away to Jose Shithead who works in your laundry room?  That’s who’s gonna give us the biggest challenge—I’m tellin’ you—all them spics and chink bastards that’ll be comin’ to take it all away from us.”

            They were all fired up, and I suppose there was a lot to what they were saying.  But I had to add this: “Gentlemen, to tell you the truth, I’ve heard all this kind of big, over-amped talk before in Chamber of Commerce meetings back home.”

            “No!” Brown insisted with all his energy, “you got one thing wrong–and that’s scale, Sonny.  We’re not talking about school tax or membership fees.  We’re talking about Empire, Sonny, the founding of an empire.  A city of gold the likes of which nobody ever dreamed of!   What you’re missin’ in all this is that we got a vision!  Capital V!”

            It was becoming difficult to argue against this determined bunch.  I looked around the table and each one of these scoundrels was nodding solemnly–yes, Sonny, we need you, five percent and forget the goddamn conflict of interest.  You keep yourself clean as a whistle, God and country, you do everything your dear mother ever taught you, Mason and Larkin too.  But you know, Sonny, you know...just a little word here and there, just every once in a while.

              It was time to leave.  I had another appointment over at the mission to see the good padre.   So I said, “OK, gents, I got the idea.  And Lansford’s right, I’m going for a ride, and I’ll think about it.   I can’t even say I’ll come to a conclusion anytime soon, but I do promise you, I’ll think about it.”  Then I left.  And it was only after I had gone a little way along the trail toward the mission that something occurred to me.  Yes, the something was that in my version of the wild west, there were no teams or crews.   It was every man alone and for himself against the jungle.  Just ask any of those mountain men.