Sierra Nevada foothills, California, 1853
As soon as we reached Luck’s End, I knew we shouldn’t have split off from the wagon train. Not that we had any wagons. They’d been abandoned at the eastern edge of the mountains weeks ago, too heavy to pull up the steep slopes. The slow, plodding oxen could have made the climb, but there was nothing to feed them. People had just turned them loose.
Unlike them, I was quick and surefooted, able to forage for myself. I never strayed too far from camp, though, because the mountains were filled with strange predator tracks and smells.
I wasn’t sure what my owner, Buckeye Jack, was looking for out here in the wilderness. But I didn’t think we’d find it at Luck’s End. The town was just a single row of wood-frame buildings, all huddled close like a herd of cows in a snowstorm. Buckeye Jack tied my reins to a hitching post and lifted his grandson, Jesse, down from my back. The boy’s freckled face was sunburned and smudged with dust.
“We’re here?” he asked, looking around the nearly empty street. “This is where the gold is?”
“Not here in town, Jesse, but in the riverbeds of the valley,” said Buckeye Jack. “As soon as we get a few supplies, we’ll set up camp.” He left us and walked into a building with a false front that made it look bigger than it was. On the porch, two men with long white beards were playing a game of checkers.
Jesse sat down next to me at the edge of the wooden boardwalk. Across the street, a couple of men were loading a pile of feed sacks onto the back of a long-eared pack mule. As soon as one man hoisted a sack onto the mule from the left, the animal reached around to the right and grabbed the bag in its big teeth, slinging it back onto the pile. The men were so busy arguing about the proper way to load a mule that they didn’t notice.
Jesse would have laughed at this once, but now he just sighed and rested his chin in his hands. I reached down to snuffle his rust-colored hair. Poor Jesse. . . . Both his parents had died in the cholera outbreak on the wagon train some months back. Now the only family he had left was his grandfather, Buckeye Jack. And me—I tried to keep a watchful eye on him, as mares in a wild herd will do for an orphan foal.
Buckeye Jack came stomping out of the building with a bulging burlap sack slung over his shoulder. He looked even unhappier with his load than the mule did. “That shopkeeper’s as good as a thief!” he said angrily to the men on the porch. “Thirty-six dollars for a shovel that’s not worth fifty cents, and two dollars for a single egg.”
“True enough,” drawled one of the men. He tilted his chair and spat a brown wad of tobacco juice over the edge of the porch. “But what can we do? Ain’t no other place to buy supplies within fifty miles.”
Jesse jumped to his feet, his eyes wide and anxious. “Will we starve?”
Buckeye Jack forced a smile onto his face. “A couple of Ohio wildcats like us? No, sirree. The shopkeeper gave us enough credit for a good canvas tent, a couple of tin pans, and enough vittles to last a few weeks. By then we’ll have plenty of gold to buy every barrel of pork and pickles in the place.”
“And I can hunt,” said Jesse. “Papa showed me how before . . .” He swallowed hard.
Buckeye Jack heaved the sack of supplies onto my back and fixed it in place with a rope wound around my belly. The sharp edge of something dug into my ribs. “We’d best make tracks to stake a claim before dark,” he said as Jesse scrambled up in front of my cargo.
“I thought I’d outfoxed the other goldbugs by heading north instead of south to Sutter’s Mill, where everyone expects to find another windfall,” said Buckeye Jack as he led me down the dusty street. “But it seems that plenty of others had the same idea.”
“Is there any gold left for us?” asked Jesse. “Don’t you worry,” said Buckeye Jack. He gave
me a friendly slap on the neck. “This gold-and-white filly is our good-luck charm, remember? I knew it the minute I set eyes on her at Fort Kearney. And I won her from the major in a single game of blackjack, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but . . . we haven’t had very good luck since then, have we?”
Buckeye Jack didn’t reply. The town disappeared behind us as we followed an overgrown path into the foothills. The sun burned low and orange in the sky, like the remains of a campfire, and the day’s warmth was fading fast.
At the bottom, I regained my balance and shook my head to clear away the dust. I spotted Buckeye Jack getting stiffly to his feet nearby. His clothes were torn, and his hands were scraped raw. But he didn’t seem to notice. He was gazing out across a small clearing that stretched before us. At its edge, a river flowed around scattered gray rocks.
“Home, sweet home,” said Buckeye Jack.
As we trekked across a narrow ridge, a pile of rocks gave way under Buckeye Jack’s boots. He let out a yell and tumbled down the hillside, slabs of loose shale raining after him.
Jesse called out, but there was no answer. He turned me off the ridge and urged me down the steep bank. It was hard to keep my balance with the heavy pack swaying from side to side. I sat back on my haunches and held my front legs stiff in front of me as I slid.
Copyright © 2019 by Whitney Sanderson; illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.