Charles Chambers sat his horse, pausing a moment for his son and the mule he led to catch up. Below him, fingers of green meadows crisscrossed by ribbons of silvery water reached out from between stands of conifers. A small herd of elk with a bull, its new antlers shrouded in velvet, browsed near dark spruce. Tree-covered slopes with lingering snowbanks rose beyond, catching the last rays of sunlight in the gathering shadows.
"That's the Mulpah down below. Least that's what the Nez Perce Indians call it--the Little Salmon River. It runs straight north to the main Salmon." Charles adjusted his hat and pushed back his sandy hair.
"It's hard to believe, Pa," replied Samuel. He had brought his horse and the mule up.
A small river meandered through the meadows below. Snow lay scattered beneath the trees, and here, where they had crossed over the divide from Council Valley, it lay in deep, rotten drifts.
"We've gone far enough for the day." Charles swung his lanky frame down. "If we get an early start tomorrow, we can make it to the main Salmon. Within the week, we should be in Warren's camp."
Charles watched as his son dismounted and began loosening the cinch to his saddle. Samuel was slightly built with blond hair and striking blue eyes. He was still fourteen, but in many ways already a man. Charles had doubted his decision to bring the boy, but he had realized that even if Samuel sometimes lacked the strength, he had the heart to do a man's job.
Charles recalled his own youth. He had had to grow up fast on the frontier. He had lost his own parents early. A brother had been killed during the Indian Wars. He thought he had left it all behind when he had met and married Mary Travis. They built themselves a small farm in central Iowa, and soon after, Samuel was born and then Emma and Jeremiah. Those were magical days until the Southern Uprising. He went to war when Samuel was not quite four. He felt a wash of emptiness. Both Emma and Jeremiah had died from the flu. He yet had a young daughter, Elizabeth, born after the war.
He watched as his son struggled to remove the saddle from the black gelding. Spooky--Samuel had named him. The boy heaved the saddle to the ground, catching his look.
"It ain't gettin' any lighter, Pa." He cracked a grin.
Charles smiled. Samuel's high spirits during their journey had been uplifting.
He pulled his own saddle from the mahogany bay he had brought home from the war--not much more than a colt back then. Black mane and tail, black socks melding into a red, well-muscled body, the gelding had been destined to be a cavalry horse; however, the war ended, and he took him back to Iowa. Buster--Jeremiah had named him.
"We could go farther," Samuel said. He had begun loosening the mule's packs.
"Good spot here for a camp," Charles replied. "Farther down we might be inviting trouble. This is Nez Perce country."
He helped Samuel lift the packs to the ground. They had done well. None of their gear had been lost, and they had recently purchased staples at Fort Boise--sugar, salt, flour. Packing them in would conserve the meager grubstake he had put together from what little cash he had saved and from what he had borrowed from Jake.
He ran a line between trees for a tarpaulin. The weather looked good, but experience told him they could be in rain or snow by morning, especially at this elevation.
The odors from burning wood and sizzling venison mingled in the evening air. Two days ago, Samuel had killed a young doe. Charles joined him at the fire. "Smells good."
"Here, Pa, have some." Samuel handed him a plate with a thick piece. He then cut a piece for himself.
Charles chewed a sliver, enjoying the rich flavor. "Tastes mighty fine, son."
Samuel nodded but did not reply, his mouth full. Charles noticed. He could not help but realize that his son was still a skinny boy, no matter what he ate, much like himself before he began shooting up in his own teenage years and began putting on muscle and weight. He could not help but wonder how Samuel kept going all day without an ounce of fat on his body.
Charles paused. Now that they neared their destination, he could not withold his thoughts. "I guess we'll know in a few days, if I'm not making the biggest mistake of my life."
Samuel flashed a look.
"All this could be nothing but a wild-goose chase, son. We could end up no better off than when we left Iowa."
"But the way you tell of what O'Riley said, all we got to do is scoop up the gold and put it in sacks, remember?"
"Not quite." He managed a laugh. Samuel stretched what he had said, but since telling the story, the boy had been completely caught up with the quest. "Even if we find the ledge and it isn't dug up, it won't be that easy. It's lode gold."
"You said O'Riley marked it. We'll find it."
"He also said you had to pert near be standin' on it to see it." Charles waved toward the hills. "I've been studying this country. All the ridges look the same, and the heavy timber and brush make it near impossible to see a thing."
Samuel quit chewing. "Hey, Pa, you're the one who's supposed to be sure about this."
Charles tried to lessen his doubts. "I 'spect you're right. I keep second-guessing myself. O'Riley wouldn't have left it to get his brother if it hadn't been good." He shook his head. "I can't begin to feel how he must have felt when he got home and found his brother had been killed at war." He sliced off another piece of venison. "He wouldn't talk when I first met him. He didn't seem to care if he lived or died, just so long as he could kill Rebs. It was only after a few scrapes together that he opened up. Then he told me about the ledge, but by then he just wanted the war to be over so he could return to look for it. He wanted me with him when he did. He had decided his brother would have wanted as much. So I got to believe it's still there."
He had told Samuel the story before. The man he fought alongside, Kevin O'Riley, had been grubstaked by his brother. O'Riley had agreed to return for his brother if he struck pay dirt. He had first tried the Clearwater and then Florence, two new strikes in Idaho Territory. When news reached him that James Warren had discovered gold south of the Salmon River, he headed there. He and others eventually located a good placer and began working it. At some point, while O'Riley had been hunting, he struck a rich ledge, and as he had promised, he left camp to return for his brother.
"Maybe it was lucky you and O'Riley got to be friends."
"For sure. We wouldn't be sitting here otherwise," Charles said. "Funny how things work out. I always figured after O'Riley got wounded, he had healed up and headed back on his own to find the gold. I didn't blame him. Surprised me to blazes last winter when I found out he had died."
Samuel nodded. "In a way, O'Riley and his brother are kind of like you and Uncle Jake. Uncle Jake helped grubstake us, and now he's counting on us to find that ledge. And we're gonna do it," Samuel proclaimed.
"If it's still there." Charles tried to temper Samuel's enthusiasm, but he felt the excitement as well. This would be the answer to getting a place of their own and to helping out Jake. He owed Mary's brother.
"It's there, Pa," Samuel replied. "I can feel it in my bones."