The fact that Davis and Luca were putting their pans and shovels away indicated, for all intents and purposes, that they believed the old girl would not be found that morning.
Johnny had been out on the hunt for over two hours, so the two men made the most of their time. They packed camp because they knew Johnny would cry and howl if they weren’t ready to join in as soon as he returned. As much as both of them wanted to stay and continue working their claim, Johnny would make such a proposition intolerable. He’d be a sobbing handful without Princess Soup-Bone in tow.
“He’s too superstitious, no? She was just another mouth to feed. We would have done okay without her.”
Davis sensed Luca ending the last sentence as if it were a question.
“Maybe,” Davis said. He wasn’t confident enough to fall on either side of the equation. He often liked to see things play out before making a decision. Some considered Davis spineless because of that. He figured it was just smart. The fact was Princess had only been with them a couple of months, and their newfound luck seemed mighty convenient after her arrival.
“I wouldn’t discount anything yet,” he continued. “If it wasn’t for her, we may have been many miles from each other right now–you on a cutter heading back around the Cape, Johnny probably drinking away his rheumatism in a dusty alley.”
Davis didn’t want to think about where he might have ended up. When he’d sailed out of the Boston harbor eight months ago, he’d sworn to his parents and siblings that he wouldn’t return until he could buy them each their own set of authentic Chinese porcelain tea cups. To face them again would be a humiliation of the first order. He wasn’t prepared to endure such. He’d always been considered a roustabout with his head in the clouds and his unremarkable homecoming would only go to prove the rest of the world right.
“Bah,” Luca said, skipping smooth stones across the creek while Davis continued working. The Italian was young and brash, not one to readily believe in much anything happening outside the material world influencing anything within it. Though he verbally disdained any notion of Princess acting as a benevolent messenger, in practice, he seemed to defer quietly if Johnny made a decision based on his peculiar beliefs.
My friends, Johnny had said with his Russian accent suddenly becoming thicker than his day-to-day speech, the Leshiy wood-spirits are alive and well. They come in time of need and must be respected!
As Davis strung together the handles of their tin pots and secured them to Becca, their mule, he laughed to himself that calling a wood-spirit Princess Soup-Bone was respectful. Yet Johnny took no issue with it and the name seemed to stick when Luca offered her an actual soup-bone on their first night of celebration.
After confirming Becca was fully loaded, Davis took a moment to admire the way the morning sun hit the calm waters streaming through their claimed section of Percy’s Gulch. They were the only ones in this area barely two miles south of the foothill town of Sonora. One month ago, they’d passed many folks coming the opposite way, always with a look of pity on their faces. They must have looked something awful, these three men in near rags following a fur-and-bones mutt. More than a few times, they were handed loaves of bread by traveling parties without a word being spoken–only eyes that said, “You poor things. So late to the party.”
It was true. Among the general population of California miners and those who made money from serving their needs, there was little doubt as to the slim prospects so close to Sonora. It was June of 1855 and this area had been well picked over since bodies came rushing over mountains and ocean six years prior.
Or so it was believed.
Davis and Luca had initially thought they were crazy to settle in and dig here, especially given how they had been down to hard biscuits and unseasoned pemmican. A hot pot of coffee had been a distant memory then.
But Princess insisted on stopping in this very spot and refused to budge. That was sign enough for Johnny. He’d taken to the brown-coated girl like a bee to a dandelion, following her in a semi-delusional state. Davis and Luca had been too worn down and tired to protest as he began unpacking Becca without so much as consulting them.
The three of them panned a little inlet that turned out to be rife with gold dust and the incident was certainly enough for Davis to wonder if just maybe, Princess Soup-Bone was truly sent to guide them. Davis would never forget that first day of slack-jawed disbelief followed by the loudest hootin’ and hollerin’ that he’d ever heard. Both Luca and Johnny had spouted off in their native languages–Luca with his passionate-sounding Italian and Johnny with his angry-sounding Russian (Johnny’s real name was Alexander Blinov, the last name meaning something akin to a pancake, so he said everyone had taken to call him Johnny after johnnycakes).
Within a week, they had seven jars filled to the brim with beautiful yellow flakes. Coffee, eggs, and even an occasional tour around the saloon brought all of their spirits to a new height. Davis commissioned a carpenter to build them a sluice box so that they could start hauling more at a time.
All was well for the past seventeen days until Princess disappeared some time in the middle of the night. Truth be told, her sudden departure left Davis on edge, but he was unsure if it was because she was what Johnny claimed her to be or just the downtrodden effect it would have on them all.
At that thought, there was a rustle in the woods behind them. Davis and Luca both turned to see Johnny running back into the camp, panting and wheezing, bent over with his hands on his knees.
“Someone took her,” he said breathlessly. “I know it.” There was tobacco spittle running down his graying beard and traces of tears carved into the grime on his cheeks. He had a wild aspect to his eyes that Davis had hoped would never return.
“Now hold on,” Davis said. “Why would someone come and take an old dog?”
Johnny gave him a reprimanding look.
“I know she’s more than that to us,” Davis quickly backpedaled, “but no one else knows that.”
Johnny ignored him. “We need to go to town,” he said. “She must be there. Or someone will have seen her.”
Davis eyed Luca who nodded back. “We figured as much,” Davis said.
Johnny looked around and saw the empty camp.
“You packed everything? No. No. Leave the tools,” Johnny said. “Someone will come and take our claim.”
Davis shook his head. “More likely someone will think twice if they find our equipment here,” he said. “Most people will pass this place by otherwise.”
Johnny hesitated for a moment, but then assented. “You’re right, you’re right. I’m just–”
And he left it at that as the three of them departed for Sonora.
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