Black River
by Duncan Fyfe

ONE MONTH AFTER Thomas Whaley had settled in San Diego, he took up arms to defend it. His gun was a six-shooter, never fired. Being a merchant, and before that a shipping clerk, he didn’t ever have occasion to use the weapon. The fact of the matter was he had never been in a fight at all. That was surely why he was left to guard Old Town, while seventy volunteers went to hunt down the Indians in the mountains.

A thousand Indians. He heard. That would be the Cupeño at a minimum, maybe the Yuma and the Cahuillas too, but the seed of the revolt belonged to the Cupeño, who had the notion that they weren’t going to pay any taxes. It started at Warner’s Ranch, sixty miles off, they burned that to the ground and killed nine whites between there and the Colorado River crossing.

Whaley had stood watch at the outskirts of Old Town every night for a month. The night sky was pleasant, calm, pretty much standard as night skies go, and Whaley’s vigil was interrupted only by a fellow watchman, inebriated, who threw his carbine to the ground and took out his penis. Whaley watched the man urinate in a careless arc over the desert.

“Where are you from?” he called out.

“San Francisco,” the stranger shouted, too loudly. “Came by boat.”

“I remember you. You’re one of the Regulators.”

He shouldered his rifle. “We call ourselves the Rangers now.”

“And who’s in charge of you?”

“What do you mean?”

In December, the volunteer company began to return with news of victory. It seemed that Cupeño had struggled from the start. The Yuma abandoned them wholesale but the Mountain Cahuilla did them one worse. Their chief asked to meet with the Cupeño leader at the village Razon, then tied him up and handed him over to San Diego. His son was there and they shot him. The volunteers shot all the rest of the Cupeños at Los Coyotes and Chino. Some were tried for the burning of the ranch out there in the desert and then shot.

Antonio Garra was the chief’s name and it was only him that was remanded to San Diego to stand trial. At dawn, the militia led him in chains up the main street to the jail. Whaley was still on watch and the town’s early risers got up to join him. Garra looked to be about fifty years old to Whaley’s eye. Confused, probably beaten. Henry Montague, the sheriff, mixed with the on-lookers and confided to them in hushed tones about who this man Garra was and what he had done. Garra was the one who gave the order, Montague said, the order to – and he slowly spoke the words kill, all, whites and watched for the person to contort their face into the right mask of horror.

“Does he admit to it?” Whaley asked when the sheriff came around to him.

“No, not to any part, but that’s fine, we don’t need it.” The sheriff put a hand on Whaley’s shoulder. “Tom, you know what we need now most of all is for commerce to resume its natural flow.”

So Whaley returned to business at Tienda General, his store on Juan Street. He slept on a cot on the upper story. Christmas passed. In the new year Antonio Garra was tried on charges of murder, treason and theft. He spoke little, but to deny he participated in or ordered the attacks. Nonetheless the jury found him guilty, no surprise, on everything but the treason charges. He was sentenced him to death later that day. January tenth, 1852. And shortly after the verdict came in, Sheriff Montague walked into Tienda General and rapped his knuckles on the doorframe. Whaley looked up. “Get your gun.”

You will understand, of course, that I had to leave, Thomas Whaley wrote his mother from aboard the Sutton, three years ago. The ship sailed from New York on the first day of the year, bound via Cape Horn for California. Only days earlier had Whaley fixed his prospects in the West and arranged passage on the ship. Whaley’s mother and sister had been visiting in Virginia at the time and returned home later that month to find Thomas departed for California gold.

“And I may as well inform you,” he decided to put in the letter, “that I am in love with a young woman in Brooklyn, Anna DeLaunay, and I intend marrying her. She is sixteen or seventeen, of affectionate disposition, innocent as a lamb, and should she succeed in obtaining her education she will make a smart and talented woman. Of course, I must be able to support a wife, &c. I believe that I shall soon be able.”

Whaley, then twenty-five, estimated he could return home after two years in San Francisco with fifty thousand dollars, maybe as much as a hundred. He reckoned the smart money to be made in the gold rush was by establishing a business and trade in general goods. In the hold of the Sutton Whaley carried large consignments – window sashes, hardware, some guns – destined for sale in San Francisco, and intended on petitioning his mother to deliver premium merchandise from his late father’s still-thriving locksmith business. This was a safe calculation for success, thought Whaley, and other different circumstances, he might have been proven correct.

Things, as they tend to, got worse. The voyage around the Horn, some fifteen thousand miles, expected to take no more than four months, lasted closer to seven. One passenger blew his brains out on the deck. One was lost overboard. One was murdered in a brawl in a saloon ashore at Valaparaíso. The Sutton’s novice captain, ever more indecisive and paranoid, confiscated a passenger’s personal journal under the suspicion that he was being made the subject of seditious commentary. If he had tried that with me, thought Whaley, I would have run him through. During these times, Whaley consoled himself with thoughts of Anna, and examined and re-examined the gold locket he carried that guarded her daguerreotype. At night Whaley watched the sky and wondered whether, at that precise moment, Anna might be at home in New York gazing upon the very same star.

When the Sutton docked at San Francisco, Whaley found he did not care for the city. It was hot, expensive, and subject to the random mayhem of a thuggish gang called the Regulators: thirty men who roamed the streets together committing mindless acts of property damage. Whaley built a general store on Montgomery with a bedroom on the upper floor, optimistic about his investment and the commercial prospects of the locks his mother had sent from New York. Whaley paid dearly to receive the shipment, only to discover that the locks were too good: too up-market and carefully designed for the needs of the miners. In the absence of quick profits, two years in San Francisco stretched into three, and in the third year Whaley’s store and home were destroyed by an arson fire. Having watched his prospects collapse to cinders, Whaley, who considered himself temperate, entered a saloon and had a drink. Here, he spied a young man he suspected was a member of the Regulators and, speculating on top of that that the Regulators were responsible for the fire, imagined himself seizing the tufts of the man’s hair from behind and bringing his head down hard against the brass rail of the bar. And he could do this. It was entirely up to him. Whaley lost himself in fantasy until the man left with a girl on his arm. That night he wrote a letter sending for Anna. Months later he received a letter from her mother saying no.

Though the two years had long expired, Whaley could not countenance returning to New York a failure, not even to ‘start over’ back east – as though to admit all the work he had done in California had no meaning. Among the merchants Whaley heard promising news of San Diego, an old Spanish town of three hundred citizens. And thus, with no physical evidence in San Francisco to testify that Thomas Whaley had ever been there, he left the city behind by steamer, headed to that southern settlement to find the riches and the luck that had so far been denied him.

Whaley put up stakes in what they called the Old Town. The state of the market was not, perhaps, as healthy as he had been led to believe: the town did not boast of, but made excuses for, its six stores, two hotels, one doctor and a lawyer’s private sitting room that doubled as the town’s Catholic church. The certainty of making a fortune in a very short amount of time – what had drawn Whaley to California in the first place – no longer seemed likely to be a very short time at all, or a certainty. But Whaley would succeed here, because of course he must: and so with Protestant work ethic devoted himself whole-heartedly to the business of running of Tienda General, working long and tirelessly, and closing early only once, when the painful duty of executing Antonio Garra fell upon his shoulders.

Three past noon at El Campo Santo Cemetery. Thomas Whaley was one of twelve men in the ad hoc firing squad, all assembled in a loose gang amongst the gravestones. Of course, there was no law on the books to say he had to do this. It would still be possible, if not respectable, to back out, and Whaley would be a liar if he said he did not see the appeal. But he was asked in the first place for a reason, because in this community he was a kind of, well yes he was a leader in the community, prominent and successful in business. Two months in San Diego and to have that sort of reputation – and dare he say it, prospects – was not a thing to treat lightly. This was messy, inconvenient work but it was the necessary cost of having responsibilities and, frankly, being an adult.

Of the others, he knew Painter, the town doctor, then Stephen Ames, and the three lawyers who practised in Old Town. The others he had seen in the store at one time or another. Each carried their own guns: Colt revolvers, to a man. Whaley had struck a good deal with the law here. The sheriff would purchase ammunition from Tienda General at seventy cents on the dollar so as to reimburse to each of the men. The sheriff always paid in cash, and the favorable rate would ensure future business. Quick returns, small profits: Whaley lived by this.

The old padre – dressed in black, as was the fashion – stood a couple feet away from the firing squad, gloomy. Montague was to escort Antonio Garra to the cemetery, where a freshly dug grave at the edge of the road awaited, the shovel temporarily lodged in an adjacent heap of soil. The idea had been to make Garra dig his own grave: a plan hastily revised after the sentencing, when a debate ensued over whether Garra was too frail to dig a grave in a reasonable amount of time. He probably was, went the consensus. The youngest of the twelve men was volunteered to do the digging; he did this hastily, and with much complaint.

There were only five graves in El Campo Santo, most of them filled in the three years prior to Whaley’s arrival in San Diego. From a distance, one would not even perceive it as a cemetery: only a flat tract of land, a few pieces of wood sticking out, stretching uphill into the haze of an empty horizon. Miguel de Pedrorena and Maria Zamorano were two of those interred there. Both of them died at an advanced age of long illnesses. The small plot was intended for the Catholics. Antonio Garra was not known to be a Catholic, but that was not thought to matter very much.

Whaley removed his revolver from its leather holster, and felt the weight to reassure himself that he had loaded it before leaving the store. He nodded confirmation to the others, as if they were observing this process, but each of them looked preoccupied and bored. Montague was late. Whaley thought about the drink he had in San Francisco, and who would craft the grave marker for Garra. What would it say, did anybody know his date of birth, or would Garra’s marker end up something like the one nearest Whaley:



…which continued, underneath:

Who is spared in the end from leaving?

Despite his gold and all his jade,

is a man not bound to go there?

Am I a shield set with turquoise?

A stone secured in a mosaic?

Will I ever walk this earth again?

Will they shroud me in fine mantles?

Here on earth, I think of those

who ruled before me, as the place

of sounding drums draws near.

Whaley read almost to the end of the inscription, and turned away out of disinterest precisely as Montague and Garra came into sight down the road. Some of the men whooped and hollered at Garra’s slow approach. “Hey – we dug yer grave for ya!” shouted the boy who’d done it. Garra paid him no notice. “Free of charge!”

Montague stopped the Indian in front of the mob. His hands weren’t bound. Whaley gripped his gun, wondered if Garra would try something. Probably not: the Indian looked worn out. He seemed sad. Important to remember, thought Whaley, that this sad old man was getting his comeuppance. He was responsible for the death of ten men and would gladly have killed hundreds more. He had his day in court and he was over.

Montague turned Garra by his shoulder and gave him a push in the direction of his grave. “Stand there.” Garra took a few steps forward, stopped at the edge of the hole. The men slipped their guns from their holsters and kept a wary draw on Garra. Softly, Garra began to cry. Over that unpleasant noise, Montague recited Garra’s crimes. The padre readied himself to deliver whatever administrations were appropriate and Whaley shut his eyes and inhaled sharply –

Tom Whaley you are going to do something horrible. This is a thing against God. Yes he is a sinner and a guilty man but you will take a life which is something no one but God should take. And you Tom Whaley are not a Killer I pray that I may look at myself after this is done and see that I am still an Honest and Good Man, oh God I pray to You grant me that. Tell me it is His will that we must do things that are against God so that we may fully know Him I do believe it I do believe it I do believe it. Tom Whaley you must look him in the eye when you do it there is no honor in it other-wise and ah FUCK just give it to the shit-sack put him in the ground I want to see him dead I want to see his blood

“Will you seek pardon from these men?” said the padre. “Will you seek pardon from God?”

Garra turned and raised his head to meet to the padre and the firing squad. “Gentlemen,” he said, and Whaley shot him in the throat. His neck blew open and Garra fell to a knee, away from the grave, spitting up and clutching at the wound. “Well – fire!” yelled Montague, and the rest of the men unloaded their pistols into him, one shot then two each, Whaley firing again, not seeing amongst all the blood where his second shot landed. Garra collapsed onto his back, twitching then not, until he lay still beside his open grave. “Someone push him in,” said Montague, and Whaley made himself watch this happen as bile gurgled up into his mouth and he forced himself to swallow that too and not look away. Two men rolled Garra, all burst and hanging pieces, into the hole and looked around for a cloth with which to wipe their hands clean. “That’s fine,” said Montague. “Back to work.” Whaley vomited.

Three nights later, asleep on the top floor of Tienda General, Whaley had a dream. In this dream, he saw a girl, or rather a young woman, walking alone in the dark. There was no sun, nor sky, so it was difficult for him to see her face, but as he waited and looked closely he could see that she had brown hair falling around her shoulders, and eyes just like his own, and in the dream he knew that this was his daughter. She was wandering barefoot in the bottom of a deep canyon, dressed in a white night-gown stained with blood that flowed from a hole in her chest down to the hem. She was cold. Inside the canyon, a sharp wind raced along the walls and falling snow transformed into ice upon her skin. After some time, the girl came through the canyon to a black river with no bridge in sight. With no other way forward, she waded in cautiously, the water lapping hungrily at her ankles. She walked along the riverbed until the water came up to her neck, and the floor dropped abruptly into a chasm. She kicked and swam towards the far-off shore, the current increasing ever more in force until, out of breath, she was swept underwater. For a moment, she was gone, and the river still. Then she emerged naked by the other shore and walked out onto the bank, the blood streaming down her body in a trail wending back into the void of the river. She dropped to her knees and collapsed upon the stones. For what, in the dream, felt like hours, the girl lay face down in the sand. At some point she was come across by an old dog, who ventured close and nudged her face gently with his nose. A smaller dog, running behind him, stopped as well, and made pleading noises at her. Drowsily, the girl woke up and rose to her feet. Climbing the riverbank, while the dogs watched her curiously, she saw a mountain up ahead, and a winding path strewn with pieces of jagged rock leading around the peak. She nodded and started down the path with the dogs close behind. Whaley looked beyond the mountain, where there lay a long gorge crawling with strange creatures, and further past that to a black lake, larger than the one before, and further past that to where he understood his daughter must go. A windowless house on top of a hill, its insides swarming with flies, worms and spiders, where in the dark a man sat naked on a chair of bones; the flesh rotted away from his chest, fingernails black, and a knife driven through his nose. Whaley drifted towards this man, who sat patiently upon his throne, watching the open door and waiting, breathing softly and raggedly, in and out, and looming as he had loomed ten thousand years before. Then he woke up.

It was not yet dawn. Whaley rolled over in his cot to look out at the stars, and he wondered in that moment if Anna might be seeing the very same thing. Then he remembered that it would be day-time in New York now, and Anna would be rising and eating breakfast and preparing to face the bright day and not looking at any stars at all. More than anything, he longed for Anna, and to hold her in his arms, but Anna was in New York, and New York was very far away indeed.

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