San Francisco, 1852
I guess you want another story about the gold rush. You newspaper folks are all alike. You get paid for writing down other people’s yarns when you get tired of making up your own. Well, I don’t really mind because I enjoy telling tales. Just don’t accuse me of lying. Maybe I am and maybe I’m not.
My lady Lisbeth and myself, we have lived here in San Francisco since it was Yerba Buena. I must say we each could spin off some strange and marvelous yarns about things we have seen and heard. Some you would believe and some you’d scoff at. Me, I don’t care, long as I get to tell them. What comes to mind today was a fellow I met once or twice, name of Edwyn Fohler. German immigrant, he was. You must have noticed we have a lot of immigrants in this town, German, French, Chilean, Australian, Chinese, you name it. I met Mr. Fohler one day down at Sam Brannan’s dry goods store where I went to see about a delivery. Brannan was getting rich selling picks and shovels to the miners, most of whom stayed broke. A lot of his goods I kept in my warehouse until he had room for them. Anyway, Mr. Fohler approached me while I was waiting for Brannan to deal with another customer.
“Sir,” he said to me, “I can see by your dress and demeanor you are a respectable business man. Perhaps you might advise me.” His English was about perfect, though with a slight accent. He was a short fellow with round eyeglasses. I would have taken him for a store clerk.
“Don’t know about respectable,” I said, “but I’m in business. How I could I help a fellow like yourself?”
He gave a big smile, like someone who had just won a jackpot. “My name is Mister EdwynFohler,” he said. “I am off to the mines. Just as soon as I am able to equip myself.”
“Congratulations,” I told him. I gave him my own name, Hyram Courtenay. I thought of warning him not to let Brannan take all his money, but thought better of it, Brannan being a friend and all. “What can I do for you, sir?”
He rubbed his hands together. I noticed they were not the sort of hands that looked as if they had ever held a pick and shovel.
“I will be in need of a partner,” he said. “Perhaps two or three. I have thought about forming a mining company. I hoped perhaps you might steer me toward some reputable and honest men who might be interested.”
At that I asked Herr Fohler how long he had been in California.
“Three days. I came aboard the Californian. Why do you ask, sir?”
I couldn’t help grinning. “Just that when you have been in San Francisco for awhile you will come to recognize that it’s not an easy thing to find one reputable and honest man. Myself excepted, of course. But you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a partner once you get to the gold fields. You need more than one to work a claim.”
“I see.” He looked thoughtful. “Well sir, I do come prepared. I have studied geology and modern mining methods, having read several books on the subject. I understand panning and sluicing and hydraulics. But I am not what you would call experienced, as such.”
“Go on up to the fields then,” I told him. “Far be it for me to discourage a man. You’ll get the experience soon enough. Ah, but excuse me; I see Mr. Brannan wants me.”
I took care of my own business quickly enough and left Herr Fohler in the store, to the mercies of Sam Brannan. I didn’t expect I was likely to see Fohler again. He was one among thousands headed for the hills, to find either riches or frustration. On my way out I wished him well; he smiled and waved. I do not know if he ever smiled again after that day.
By coincidence, I did catch a glimpse of him once before he left town. I went to the docks to meet the ferry from Sacramento because a business partner was due back from a brief trip. After passengers had debarked and cargo was unloading, a group of men pushed forward preparing to board. I was surprised to notice Fohler among them. He saw me in turn and paused a moment.
“Good morning, sir!” He gave a quick bow. “I wish to thank you for your advice and hospitality of the other day. I have indeed found a partner to accompany me to the mines. This is Hans. I’m afraid he speaks no English; please forgive him.”
The man next to him stepped forward after Fohler spoke a few words in German. He bowed in turn and extended a hand, which I took. I had a moment of fear that he might squeeze too hard; his hand was twice the size of mine, and sinewy. The man himself was equally huge, broad in both shoulders and jaw. In fact I judged him twice the mass of Herr Fohler. I guessed he would do well in shoveling dirt, if nothing else.
“And now please excuse us.” Fohler gave another quick bow. “We must board the ferry. We are off to gain our fortunes!” And they both hurried on to the boat.
I thought no more of Herr Fohler or his massive partner. Indeed, when four or five months had passed I had forgotten all about them. There were many other people and things to capture my attention here. Then, on a Sunday afternoon when Lisbeth and I returned from church, a messenger came to my door bearing an odd note. It said,
I hope you will have the kindness and time to pay me a brief visit at City Hospital. I fear I am in a bad way. You are one of the few men in this city whose name I know. There is something of which I must unburden myself before I am too late. P.S. I asked Mr. Brannan to come, but he says he has not the time.
I showed the note to Lisbeth and asked what she thought of it. She merely shrugged and told me to go and see what the man wanted. She promised to hold my supper.
And so I hitched up our trap and drove down to the hospital. I confess this institution is not always well regarded, but I think they try their best. Anyone who can not pay is treated free. I found Fohler in a room by himself. There were two other beds, but they were empty at least for now. The place looked clean enough, but hardly what I would call luxury.
“It is so good of you to come. I had feared myself abandoned by humanity.” He waved at the rest of the room. “I had enough gold left to pay for this, but little else. Ah, but fear not. I asked you to come not to beg for money. I wish to make my confession.”
An odd remark, I thought. Perhaps the man was not quite right in the head. Indeed he had changed since last I saw him. His cheeks were sunken, eyes hollow, and his hands trembled. I noticed he had lost a few teeth, which I thought might have been due to a bout with scurvy.
“Possibly you have me confused with someone else,” I said. “I am not your priest or confessor.”
“Pah!” He waved a hand as if brushing a fly. “As to that, a priest has already been. I told him all, but it did me no good. He is sworn to secrecy. I must unburden myself to someone who will not stop at spreading knowledge of my sins far and wide. My only salvation is to make my evil known and public.” He gestured once more at the room. “They tell me I have brain fever. If by some chance I should survive this, which I believe unlikely, I intend to depose myself before your sheriff or constable. I deserve to hang.”
He interrupted himself with a fit of coughing. I fetched him a glass of water which he sipped and then downed in a few swallows.
“But first,” he said, “if you will look to that small cabinet by my bed. Please open the drawer.”
I did as he bid and removed a thick envelope. There was an address in German written on the front.
“A letter to my brother,” Fohler said. “I pray that you may help me by seeing it posted. I am happy to pay you for the fee and for any trouble.”
“I shall see it posted tomorrow morning. Never mind the fee. Is there aught else I might help you with?”
“No, only by listening. Oh well, one other thing perhaps, but I shall tell you when I finish. I would have asked the doctor to post my letter, but frankly I do not quite trust him not to throw it away. There are so few men here I feel I can trust. Truth to tell, I am not even sure of your Sam Brannan.”
I nearly laughed at that, thinking of a few others who might have made the same claim. But before I could respond, I realized that Fohler had already launched into his confession.
“At first,” he said, “Hans and I got along famously. As it turned out we were both from the same province in Bavaria, and so had much in common. We suspected we might even be distant relatives. After leaving this city we went to Sonora and soon found ourselves working on the Stanislaus River.
“When I say working, I do not exaggerate. I soon discovered that working a gold claim in reality bears little resemblance to what I had read in the manuals of geology. I sold the wagon and horse for money to live on. Then we spent our last cash to buy a claim from three men who wanted to leave. Hans and I found ourselves laboring from dawn to dusk on the river bank, digging and sluicing gravel. By the second or third day my hands were covered with blisters, and my back was the purest pain.
“Hans fared somewhat better, being more accustomed to manual labor. But even he soon began to be poorly. Our diet was mainly beans, coffee and sourdough bread. The weather was bitter cold, and it seemed our clothing was always damp. By the third month Hans had developed a persistent cough, and I feared consumption. We ate what meat we could shoot or catch, such as squirrels or birds.
“However, we stayed by our claim. After all, we were taking out a few ounces of color each day. We put our gold dust in sacks and hid them away. Toward the end, I weighed our treasure and realized we had earned just enough to repay my initial investment in wagon and supplies. To say I felt disappointment would be an understatement. I began to be discouraged to the point I was ready to give up my dreams of wealth. By this time Hans and I seldom spoke, but I thought he must feel the same. I wondered if I might talk him into buying out my half of the claim.
“Then, one morning after we had finished our breakfast of bread and coffee, a miracle! Hans without saying a word went down to the water’s edge. I saw him bend over and seem to stare at something in the creek. Then he pulled something out, stood up, and came back to me. He held out his hand in silence.
“I looked at his palm. I too could think of no word. He held the largest nugget I had ever seen. Mind you, I don’t claim it the largest ever found; only the biggest in my own experience. It lay across Hans’s hand from one side to the other, and he had large hands. After a few moments he placed it in a pocket and we went back to work.”
Here Fohler and I were interrupted as an orderly brought him a noon meal. It consisted of some kind of soup with hard bread. Fohler took a little and fell silent. He seemed to be reflecting. After a minute he put it aside, wiping his chin.
“I do not know why I burden you with all this,” he said. “Perhaps it were all best forgotten. And yet I feel a need to tell someone, though none of it may matter. That letter to my brother, now. I could not reveal myself to him, out of shame. I would not have my family think badly of me; ridiculous, is it not? I do not think he will learn the truth, unless he should come to California. Not that he ever would.
“As for Hans, I found myself thinking of his nugget and how to claim it. I further explored the creek in the spot where he’d discovered it, but found nothing save a few flakes. Of course I had no idea how much his nugget might be worth, but I was sure it would be enough to make our expedition almost profitable. I offered to buy it from him for my share of the gold dust, but he would have none of it. Even when I proposed to sign over my half of the claim, he said no.
“I found myself obsessed. The more Hans refused, the more I was determined to take it. The man himself did not look well, and his cough persisted. I began to hope he might fall ill enough for me to overpower him, or even to die. But I had no such luck.
“We went on like that for several weeks. There were days at a time when the subject of the nugget was never mentioned, though it never left my thoughts. Inevitably, I would bring it up again. I knew that Hans had taken to wearing the object on a cord about his neck, so I had no chance of making off with it when he slept. I must say Hans never showed impatience or lost his temper when I brought up the subject. He would simply listen to my proposals and quietly decline them. I tried to argue that since we were partners, half the value of his nugget should be mine. He shook his head and said it was not gold dust, not obtained by panning or sluicing. He had found it, and it belonged to him. He was the most stubborn man I ever met.
“Finally, there came a day when I could stand it no longer. We had both been drinking whiskey, I more than him. For several days we had found almost no color in our sluice box. Our precious store of gold dust was beginning to shrink. It came to me suddenly that I could remain on the river not a day longer. My clothing was tattered and filthy and I had not eaten a decent meal in weeks. Worst of all, there was no one to speak to besides Hans, and he conversed less and less. I had not seen a woman, honorable or otherwise, in two months. We were entirely alone at our claim; our nearest neighbors had all drifted off to greener fields. I knew if I were to remain a day longer, I would surely go mad.
“All at once, it was as if a demon had seized me. I got up from where I had been sitting near our fire and told Hans that he must give me his nugget at once. He said nothing. He merely glanced at me without interest. He took another pull at our whiskey jug and briefly shook his head.
“What I did next I did without thinking. I surely had not planned it. I was in the habit of bearing a derringer in my coat pocket. It was the kind with two barrels. The truth is, I had even forgotten that I carried it. Without a thought, I withdrew the pistol and shot him in the head. It was the first time in my life I had ever fired a pistol.
“The loud bang startled me almost back to sanity. I stared at Hans, as speechless as he was. He turned to look up to me, blood streaming down his face. He started to say something and stopped, perhaps because he could think of nothing. It appeared to me that my shot must have only grazed his skull, unless his head was hard as iron. Quickly, before he could rise, I cocked the pistol and fired my second shot into his chest.
“Even that did not kill the man. He clutched himself and fell sideways, emitting a deep groan. For a full minute I watched him lie on the ground, writhing and moaning. He said nothing, but his eyes pleaded with me. Finally I realized I must put him out of his misery. Horrified by my own act, I picked up a nearby hammer and crushed his skull.”
Fohler stopped talking. For several minutes he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling as if watching the scene replay in the theater of his mind. I poured him another glass of water, which he drank slowly. Then he resumed.
“You can guess the rest, I suppose. I took the nugget from Hans’s neck. I spent two or three hours digging a shallow grave in which to bury him. The next day I gathered our gold dust and left that place, abandoning both the claim and our equipment.
“I have not mentioned that Hans had a wife and son awaiting him in Germany. He had provided me with their address in case something should happen to him, as I had given him the address of my brother. When I got back to Sacramento, I wrote them a long letter expressing my sympathies for Hans’s death from consumption. I told them what a fine man and close friend he had been to me. I promised also to send them Hans’s share of our gold, once I had sold off our dust. I actually meant to do so at the time.
“But I found myself unable to part with the nugget. It had some kind of unnatural hold over me. It was as if I had traded my soul for it, and was unable to let it go. At night I would take it from my pocket and study it sometimes for hours at a time. Surely, it must be worth thousands, but I could not bring myself to sell it. The few sacks of gold dust in my possession were enough to live on for awhile, but hardly in luxury. And then I discovered that not only had I run off with Hans’s nugget, I had brought along his cough. Soon I found myself acutely ill and ended up in this hospital.
“And so, Mr. Courtenay, I must beg of you one last favor. Please take the nugget. Please unburden my soul of it.” He reached under his pillow, withdrew a small leather sack, and handed it to me.
“The nugget is yours, sir. I beg of you to take it and do what you will. Sell it, give it to a charity, or throw it away. I care not. It has ruined my life, and I want my freedom from it.”
I opened the sack enough to peer inside. Surely it was the largest nugget I had personally seen. I had heard of larger ones, but this was indeed a champion among gold nuggets.
“I will keep it safe for you,” I told him. “You may have it back when you are better. Or if you prefer, I will sell it for you.”
He shook his head. “Have you heard nothing, sir? That nugget is cursed. I want nothing more to do with it. If I should come out of this place alive, please do not tell me what you did with it. And now, sir, I am feeling tired and poorly. Please leave me in peace. Please go.”
And so I did, after a few parting words of farewell. I went home to enjoy Lisbeth’s fine supper. A few days later I returned to the hospital to see how Mr. Fohler faired. I learned he had died only the day before. I took it on myself to purchase him a modest burial. And that was the end of Mr. Edwin Fohler’s strange tale.
Oh, the nugget? You want to know what I did with it, and how much it was worth? A natural question. Drop in sometime and I will show it to you. I keep it on display on our mantel piece. It is a curiosity. Lisbeth accuses me of collecting too many knick knacks, but there it is.
About a week after Herr Fohler’s burial, I took the nugget to an assayist for appraisal. He merely laughed, shook his head, and handed it back. There was no need to test it. Herr Fohler’s nugget is iron pyrite―what they call fool’s gold.