Bound for Gold: New Excerpt
By Crime HQ
Rare-book dealer Peter Fallon returns in Bound for Gold—a thrilling historical novel about the California Gold Rush by New York Times bestselling author William Martin.
Bound for Gold continues New York Times bestselling author William Martin’s epic of American history with the further adventures of Boston rare-book dealer Peter Fallon and his girlfriend, Evangeline Carrington. They are headed to California, where their search for a lost journal takes them into the history of Gold Rush. The journal follows young James Spencer, of the Sagamore Mining Company, on a spectacular journey from staid Boston, up the Sacramento River to the Mother Lode. During his search for a “lost river of gold,” Spencer confronts vengeance, greed, and racism in himself and others, and builds one of California’s first mercantile empires.
In the present, Peter Fallon’s son asks his father for help appraising the rare books in the Spencer estate and reconstructing Spencer’s seven-part journal, which has been stolen from the California Historical Society. Peter and Evangeline head for modern San Francisco and quickly discover that there’s something much bigger and more dangerous going on, and Peter’s son is in the middle of it. Turns out, that lost river of gold may be more than a myth.
Past and present intertwine as two stories of the eternal struggle for power and wealth become one.
April 18, 1906
JAMES SPENCER DID NOT sleep well in the hours before dawn. Old men seldom did. So he was half awake when the first shock struck.
It came from somewhere out in the deep Pacific. It rolled in under the Sutro Cliffs, then ran along California Street, rumbled through the foundation of his big house, climbed the grand staircase, and vibrated right into the springs of his four-poster bed.
Everything shook, as if the ice wagon had missed the porch and backed into a corner post.
Nothing more than a good, hard jolt, he thought. Just part of living in California.
But that was not his only thought. In the fitful darkness, James Spencer’s mind worked like one of those cheap Chinatown kaleidoscopes. Every twist of his body on the bed and every turn of his head on the pillow brought a new image to his brain.
Was it the jolt that woke him? Or the dog barking down in the street? Or was it the dream? The recurring Boston dream? The nocturnal journey to the Arbella Club, where James Spencer’s father hung forever in a full-length portrait. He could see the eyes scowling down from that portrait even then, even there, three thousand miles and almost six decades away.
And why were so many dogs barking now, up the hill and down and inside the house across the street?
Then he realized what had awakened him. Not the dogs. Not the dream. Not the jolt. He had to piss … again. The never-ending need of an old man to piss was a merciless thing.
And what time was it, anyway? Still too dark to see the clock by the bed. But a little after five, he figured, because the sky was brightening. It was springtime in San Francisco, which meant it was springtime in the Sierra, too. The rivers would be running fast, pushing gold flakes over the gravel as they had for thousands of years, long before a sluice-tender plucked a pea-sized nugget from the tailrace at Sutter’s Mill and brought the world to California.
Maybe if he thought about those rushing streams, if he imagined the sound of that flowing water, it might help him to piss.
Then he could get dressed and go down to the office and spend a few quiet hours with his Gold Rush journal. He had been transcribing it, and the transcribing had become rewriting, and in the rewriting, an eighty-three-year-old man had found what might be his final purpose. He would tell his descendants about himself and his wife and their role in the building of California. He would tell them about the Chinese. He would tell them about the Irishman who lived now like a spirit in his memory. He would even tell them about the Irishman’s lost river of gold.
But first he swung his feet onto the floor and slid his toes about in search of his slippers. He could not find them. No matter. Cold feet might help him to let go if visions of fast-flowing snowmelt failed. So he picked up the chamber pot and, following the principle that men always pissed standing up, he stood.
That was when it hit him, hit him so hard that it took the legs out from under him, hit him as surely as if someone had smashed him in the back of his knees with a shovel.
The chamber pot flew into the air. James Spencer flew onto the bed. And a night’s worth of cold urine flew everywhere. The bed seemed to rise, then drop. Spencer rose with it, then he dropped.
That jolt had been just a foreshock, followed by maybe half a minute of quiet before the infernal engine humming deep in the earth had loosed a flywheel that spun off its mounts and whirled upward with the force of a hundred million steam locomotives.
Now the light from the streetlamp was dancing on the wall because the streetlamp was swinging in the street. And the window itself was moving because the walls were moving. And the bed was moving because the floor was moving, too.
James Spencer sank his fingers into the mattress and held on.
The bedroom door flew open and the shadow of Spencer’s servant, Mickey Chang, appeared. “Mr. James! Mr. James!”
“Stay there!” shouted Spencer. “Stay in the doorframe. Hold on!”
Chang braced himself against the rocking, his eyes wide white in the half light.
The roar grew louder, the shaking more violent.
The bed danced to the terrible symphony of sounds playing now like a prelude to the moment when the whole house would collapse in a thunderous cataract of wood and plaster and chimney bricks. The room echoed with the woodwind shattering of glass and china, the mid-range groan of nails and studs and floorboards straining to hold onto one another, the percussive clanks and bangs and rattles and booms of doors and drawers slamming open and windows shaking loose and furniture toppling, and beneath it all, a deep, relentless, terrifying basso profundo rumble rising from the core of the earth itself.
And over the close-by sounds came the noise of something collapsing up the street, something big.
And bells were ringing everywhere, ringing above the roar and below the shattering, ringing in a range of tones and rhythms so wide that it sounded as if every bell in every church in San Francisco was trembling with the fear that God had deserted them, as if every steeple was swinging like the lampposts on California Street.
The bed jerked to the middle of the floor, then jerked back again and banged into the wall. In another room, something fell over. On the street, someone was screaming and the dogs were still barking. And just outside the window, something was snapping. A tree was snapping. Many trees were snapping. But there were no trees on California Street. What was snapping? What the hell was snapping?
And before he could answer, it was over.
The roaring receded, like a train rumbling off into the darkness.
The shaking settled to stillness.
Spencer lay silent and listened as, one by one, the church bells stopped ringing. Now he heard only the barking of the dogs and the whimpering of Chang’s wife in the attic bedroom above. He glanced at his bedside clock. He could just make out the hands: five thirteen. The earthquake had lasted an eternity in not much more than a minute.
Mickey Chang still stood in the doorframe, arms braced, eyes wide.
James Spencer spoke as calmly as he could, “Put on the light, Mickey.”
The servant’s eyes shifted from side to side and rolled upward to watch a trickle of plaster dust drift down. Then he slid his hand along the wall to the faceplate and flipped the switch. Nothing.
“Damned electricity.” James Spencer sat up and began fishing under the bed.
Chang scurried over and found the slippers, which had done their own dance across the floor. “Wet. You piss on them again?”
“There’s piss everywhere, Mickey. We’ll clean it up later. Go and see to your wife.”
“Wear your slippers … or put shoes on.” Mickey Chang had served James Spencer for decades and stood on no ceremony. “I bet we got broken glass downstairs, too.”
James Spencer slid his feet into the slippers and went to the window. In fifteen or twenty minutes, the rising sun would illuminate the devastation, but from his bedroom on the corner of California and Gough, with Van Ness below and Pacific Heights above, he could already see it.
To his right, up the hill, the brick façade of a new house had simply dropped off, and three stories of masonry now lay in the street, shrouded in a fog of dust.
But to his left, just down the hill, the Colemans’ fine mansion stood foursquare and stalwart. That gave James Spencer some hope, because the same craftsmen had built his house.
Then he squinted down at the tracks and the steel plate in the middle of the street. He cocked an ear to listen for the hum of the cable that started spinning at precisely 5:00 A.M. at precisely 9.5 miles per hour, but he heard nothing.
As for the utility poles climbing up from Van Ness, every last one of them had snapped off, snapped like saplings. Now a great Aeolian harp of wires, the copper-alloyed symbols of modernity that carried electricity, telegraphic messages, and the telephonic sound of the human voice, lay in long, slack, useless strands. One of the wires was sparking on the pavement, sending up a little cloud of blue smoke.
A door opened across the street. Spencer’s neighbor, Matt Dooling, in bare feet and nightshirt, staggered onto his veranda and looked about, as if to convince himself that it was not a dream. Then he scratched his bald head and went back into his house.
And James Spencer turned to his daily routine.
He made an effort to refill the chamber pot, which met with some trickling success. Then he dressed in the brown suit that Chang had set out for him the night before. He chose a red cravat because red would project confidence when he sat for breakfast at the Bohemian Club. But he did not call for hot water, because on Wednesdays he took a shave in the barber shop in the Spencer Building, and he expected that by eight o’clock, the city would be getting back to normal. So he would do his part.
* * *
JAMES SPENCER’S MORNING ABLUTIONS took twenty minutes and included two aftershocks. Then, fully and finely dressed, he went to the top of the stairs, looked down, and decided that he and his wife had built well. The staircase rose straight and undamaged. The oak pillars that supported it and the oak balusters that separated it from the foyer all appeared plumb upright.
But at the bottom, he saw how the earth had throttled the mansion known as Arbella House. The chandelier had fallen from the fifteen-foot ceiling and smashed into a thousand pieces. The wires holding up the huge, gilt-framed mirror had snapped. The mirror remained miraculously upright, leaning against the wall, but the glass had shattered.
James Spencer straightened his shoulders, tugged at the points of his vest, and smoothed the broken reflection of his cravat. Then he turned to the library at the front of the house.
His collection of books, his California histories, including the complete works of H. H. Bancroft in red morocco, the rare books he had bought from the old Spanish missions along El Camino Real, and all the works of San Francisco’s “local color” school—his Bret Hartes, Jack Londons, and Mark Twains—had all been jolted from their cases. Books now covered the floor.
He picked up the volume at his feet—Roughing It. He glanced at the inscription: To the Spencers, who knew where to find the real gold. Best Wishes, Mark Twain.
He did not inventory the damage. There would be time enough for that later.
He turned instead from the dark woodwork and heavy draperies of the library to the other side of the foyer, to the bright sunlight and golden walls of the parlor. He glanced at the portrait above the fireplace. It had not budged because it was screwed to the wall. It was like its subject. It endured.
Janiva Toler Spencer wore a proud expression and a green dress in the portrait, the expression formed by raised chin and arched brow, the color carefully matched to the tile surround on the fireplace. She had planned it that way, he thought. She had been an excellent planner.
“Well, my dear,” he said, “it seems we’ve had a little shake.”
She answered, but only inside his head, and only for him.
Then he heard the pantry door scrape open. Something new, he thought. That door had never scraped before.
Mickey Chang pushed through with a tray: coffeepot, cup, newspaper. “In here or in conservatory?”
“The conservatory, as usual.”
Mickey just stood there in his black mandarin jacket and silk hat.
James Spencer knew his servant well. Mickey Chang’s hesitations and movements and grunts and silences all formed part of the unspoken language of master and man.
James Spencer said, “Is the conservatory—?”
“Maybe in here. Not so much broken glass in here.”
Spencer felt the weight of the day pressing on his chest. He gave the portrait another glance and went into the dining room.
As Mickey poured the coffee and opened the Chronicle, the house rattled with another aftershock.
James Spencer pretended to ignore it, like the seasoned San Franciscan he was. He sipped his coffee, read the news, then turned to the review of Carmen, which had premiered at the Opera House the night before, featuring the legendary Enrico Caruso. Spencer had considered going. He still liked to be seen out and about in the city he had helped to build. But a heartburn had kept him at home, and it was starting up again.
He was studying an advertisement for Bromo-Seltzer, wondering if it might put out the fire in his chest, when the back door banged open and Mrs. Cooney’s brogue filled the kitchen. She was his cook. Every morning, she rode the California Street cable car all the way from the Slot, the tough neighborhood on the other side of Market Street. Ordinarily, she got straight to work. But today, she pushed through the creaking door and right into the dining room.
James Spencer barely looked up. “Good morning, Mrs. Cooney.”
“It ain’t a good mornin’ at all, sir, I hate to say.”
“Did you see much damage, then?”
“I did indeed. Damage everywhere. But it ain’t the damage that’s been done, sir. It’s what’s comin’.”
“Coming? What’s coming?”
“Fires, sir.” Grace Cooney stepped back, as if she had delivered a blow. “There’s … there’s fires breakin’ out everywhere.”
“Fires?” James Spencer felt a new thump of pain in his chest.
Mrs. Cooney wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Must be half a dozen last time I looked. And there’s gas hissin’ somethin’ terrible, sir, all over town, right out of holes in the ground it’s comin’.”
James Spencer had feared that. Fire, not earthquake, had always been San Francisco’s greatest enemy. He went back into the parlor and looked east along California Street. And yes, gray smoke was fogging the sky beyond Nob Hill.
Mrs. Cooney said, “The fires is all south of Market Street, sir. But the thing of it is … they’re spreadin’. That’s why we rode up here in the horse cart, me girl and me. We loaded up what we could and come over the hill. It’s for certain the fires’ll burn through everything south of Market, sir. Then … well, before long, it’ll be just one big fire.”
“Calm yourself, Grace,” said James Spencer. “The best fire department in America is right here in San Francisco.”
“That may be, sir, but the thing of it is … there’s no water.”
“I seen the lads openin’ hydrants all over, and nary a drop did they get. Busted mains, I’m thinkin’. And you can’t put out a fire if the hydrant’s as dry as a fence post.”
James Spencer looked again at the distant smoke, then turned to Mickey Chang, who had been listening to every word. “Start the Ariel.”
“The Ariel? Where we goin’? Not to the fire!”
“To the office. To get our papers. And my journal. I must get my journal.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 William Martin.