Nighttime was a welcome change when it came to his working conditions. The moon and the stars provided just enough light by the creek bed for him to catch that glint that he was looking for. The water was perfectly clear, rolling over itself smoothly as it flowed downstream. He could see the sediment and rocks slightly displaced at the bottom of the creek; the water was only six to eight inches deep, by his estimate. Perfect for panning.
He scooped up a pile of sediment from the streambed and sifted through it, as focused on picking out his daily earnings as he was when he was a child back east, staring determinedly at an algebra equation. Of course, rarely did he actually complete one of these algebra problems (he'd never had a knack for the logic of arithmetic), but now things were different. All he needed was that rough golden glint and he knew he would strike it rich.
The pan was filled with nothing of value, only more gravel. He picked through it for a long time, holding out hope until the end that maybe he could eat tonight. Yet he found nothing. He cleared the gravel from his silver pan with a sigh. He'd done this too many times only to be disappointed again and again. He needed this now more than ever. He wanted to be home again.
He scooped another mass of earth into his pan, which he borrowed from Frank Rosenfeld back at camp. He hadn't taken out a large enough loan from the bank to purchase his own equipment, and hadn't made any profits either. The only tools he had by his side was a borrowed silver pan and a shared bucket to put his findings in. Rarely did this bucket it consist of anything other than an interesting rock or two that happened to be worth very little. Mostly, his money came from fishing. But fishing did not produce riches.
The previous night had been the first night that he hadn't eaten anything. He had only a nickel to show for all he'd worked, not nearly enough to buy even a loaf of bread. He was too embarrassed to ask around his camp for anyone to spare him food. He was no beggar. He was a proud, working man, and that was what he was prideful about. Work, he saw, was his path home on this horrible, mistake of a journey he had embarked on. He would earn his life, not be carried along by another man's wages.
It was when he was searching through his third pan of gravel when he heard the man and the mule approaching from behind him. He'd seen people like this before. A merchant was his first guess, judging by the supplies loaded on the mule's back. The kind of person that worked with their tongue and their mind instead of their hands. The approaching man was tall and skinny, not like the men at his camp who were sturdy and rugged, no. He had grown up with a bath every day, along with a bed and blanket for him to sleep in at night. It only took a glance to tell the man had never spent a night in the wilderness. Yet, here he was, pulling his mule by the saddle, loaded up with as many supplies as any panner could need.
This man was not a merchant, however, and when he sat next to him on the bank of the water with a clean, silver pan in hand, he was more than surprised.
"Hello," the strange man said plainly, as if he were as welcome here as the animals and the trees.
"Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying. My camp is a mile or so back, I'm sure-"
Suddenly the gentleman burst into laughter, rolled up his perfectly woven sleeves, and scooped his pan along the bottom of the stream. "I think you've got the wrong idea, sir," the strange man said. "I'm not trying to sell you anything."
He watched the strange man sift through his gravel-filled pan, and realized that he was looking for gold. He noticed a jeweled ring around the man's index finger. It was odd and a little bit comical to see this scrawny fellow doing a hardened man's work.
"What's your name?" he asked the strange man with a furrowed brow.
"Ernest Grant," he said simply, more focused on the contents of his pan. "And you?"
"Joseph Gilbert," he responded. He didn't even glance back at his pan before he continued. "So, Ernest, what brings a man like you to a stream in the middle of the wilderness?"
Ernest just studied what was in his pan, as if he hadn't even heard the question. Then, suddenly, he picked something out of it and held it up in the air between two fingers. "Precisely this," he said.
The moon was bright, bright enough to reveal that this was gold. He'd found some on his first scoop. Joseph only stared, forcing his mouth closed. Ernest gathered an empty bucket from his mule and tossed the tiny golden nugget inside. The stream rolled on peacefully.
"Must be my lucky day," Ernest said humbly, sitting back down next to Joseph.
Joseph took another look at the man's clothes and wondered. It didn't matter how much luck you had, he had never seen panning pay for luxury like this man seemed to have. "Why are you here?" he asked again before he could stop himself. Surely he didn't need the money.
He gave the response that Joseph was both expecting and fearing: "Who doesn't love the outdoors?" This was nothing but a hobby to this man. He felt himself go red in the face, but Ernest was too busy sifting through another pan to notice.
A sharp twinge of jealousy struck at him. Here he was, a million miles from his family, sitting in the dirt after dusk, working until his fingers were numb just so that he could feed himself. He'd left his wife in the east hoping to bring back the riches of California, but how wrong he had been. And to Ernest… this was entertainment. This was his game. He had all of the money he needed, and now with that piece of gold at the bottom of his bucket, he had even more. That gold should have been his…
Another distinct ting knocked Joseph out of his thought spiral.
"Eureka!" Ernest shouted. "This stream is filled!"
He said it softly, without thinking. "You're stealing my gold."
Ernest didn't break his stride or his grin. "Oh, this stream isn't owned by anyone," and he scooped another pile of gravel into his pan and began to sift through it.
The air was perfectly still. Joseph felt a ball of anger gather in his throat. He could feel the color rising in his hot face. He had a wife for God's sake, a child on the way, an empty stomach. And what did Ernest have? He had money, he had a home, and in his bucket, he had the gold that should rightfully be Joseph's. He'd been here first, after all, and this rich man came along to sweep it from under him.
They panned for only an hour and a half more before he did it.
He counted each gold piece Ernest collected. He'd collected seven in total, while Joseph's bucket was filled with nothing but the air. Each sound of gold against steel inched Jospeh closer to what felt like complete madness. With the seventh sound he was pushed over the edge.
There, in a shallow stream running through the California wilds, Ernest Grant was killed.
To Joseph, most of it was a haze. He lunged at the rich man like a cougar and gripped his long black hair between his fingers. Ernest did not have time to fight back before his head was forced underwater. He reached back, clawing at Joseph's forearm, but this was a frontiersman, not a rich city man. He was too strong and too frenzied.
Joseph saw the man's face, filled with terror, blood dissolving into the water from a cut in Ernest's face, put there by a loose sharp rock in the bed of the stream. For a brief moment, he was knocked out of his fury and instead filled with sorrow and humanity, but in this brief moment he did not let up. Already he was too far gone.
It took a long time for Ernest to become unconscious. Joseph's forearms were scratched and had been cut by the man's fingernails. The last ten seconds of the struggle were pure horror. He knew what he was doing, but how could he go back? He would either end up in prison or dead by the vengeful hand of Ernest Grant.
With a sort of terrifying relief that this was over, Joseph held back the urge to vomit. He forced himself to stop staring at the lifeless man, face down in the stream, blood still flowing from his face, and grabbed only two things: the shining wet ring from Ernest's finger, and the bucket filled with seven golden pieces. With a final, sorrowful look at the diffident mule, he fled east, away from his camp, and towards home.