The hug from John was warm, loving, the kind you’d expect from an affectionate type. He smiled his toothy grin, both soothing and mischievous, and he put his large right hand on my shoulder. I immediately felt at ease, for a moment forgetting the heavy knot which had taken over my stomach.
“You didn’t think I’d let you take this adventure on your own, dear friend?” he said, his jolly spirit bursting at the seams.
I couldn’t help but smile too. “I should have known.”
“You should have. I was insulted you didn’t invite me.”
He was right. I should have known. He was my closest friend, and as friends go, the kind always at one’s side.
John and I met seven years ago when we were two pimple-faced freshman classmates and dorm mates at Harvard. On our first day in the dorm, I approached him to introduce myself, shake his hand. He opened his arms out wide and hugged me. It was clear that we were nothing alike, not similar in personality nor demeanor. John was a rebel, good-looking, a towering, muscular figure of 6’4″, with a messy mop of curly brown hair and a chiseled face, kind eyes that sparkled with joy for life.
But we shared a love for mathematics and literature and for ending slavery and for a good bottle of wine, so we spent much of college together debating the latest social theories. We were like brothers and, for holidays or breaks, would sometimes visit each other’s families. And as the fates would have it, it was on one such vacation, a weekend visit for a birthday, that I met Luise. Luise was his first cousin. She was a year younger than us but just as strong-willed as John. Tall and willowy with long blond hair and deep blue soulful eyes, she was charming and witty, well-read and thoughtful. But it was her laugh that I fell in love with.
I courted her through multiple rejections. “I won’t be a good wife, marriage doesn’t interest me,” she’d say. But love is love, and she had my heart. A year of courting later, she said yes. I’m not sure exactly why she decided to marry me, nor did I give the question much thought. She wanted to, and that was more than enough for me. John was the best man at our wedding.
After college, we moved into homes near each other in Boston. He would often come over to our house, where Luise would, in an irony of her life, pester him about marriage. Many women desired him, but his response to her was always the same, “How can I give my heart to a woman when my love is for books?”
When Luise became pregnant, John was the first friend we told. “You’ll name him John if it’s a boy I assume,” he playfully said. He was almost as excited for our baby as she and I were.
But the months of joy leading up to the birth crashed quickly. Within a few days of delivery, both Luise and the baby were dead.
When Luise and the baby passed, life became stale, a bland surrender to existence on good days, uncontrollable thoughts on bad ones. I quit work; spent the days walking along the Charles River wondering in angst. Winters cold and gloom moved to spring’s charm, but even the new colors of life did little to change the season of my life. Father said to me one day, “feelings can be ephemeral if you give them the chance to be.” I didn’t believe him; every part of me felt this gloom was my life forever.
One warm sunny morning, as I sat on a bench in the Commons, I read in the paper about the gold rush in California. Gold had been discovered in a place called Sutter Mill. People were heading west – some for wealth, some for adventure, some for new beginnings, some for it all. My mind began to wonder, dream even, picturing what a new life in a new town may look like. Thoughts of this new life grew as days passed. Within a few short weeks, I purchased tickets for the passage. Yesterday I told John my plan, thought I was hugging him then goodbye.
Now we walked to the ship together, and as we boarded, I wondered when, if ever, I’d see Boston again. If not for John, I may have turned around at that moment. Such adventuring wasn’t me, and the reality sank in as I walked aboard the ship. I felt nauseous standing on the deck. But his courage was contagious. He was laughing jolly, already talking to other travelers. As I stared out now at the only city I had ever called home, I felt at ease for the first time in months.
We arrived in San Francisco about ten pounds lighter, our hair a bit grayer, our faces pale and worn from the nearly six months at sea. We almost died a few times. Well, eight actually, but who was counting. Sometimes from disease, others from hunger, sometimes from inclement weather, and once from a fight. John could always be counted on to stir up a heated argument. His mind and heart abhorred racists; his fists hated them even more. And one night, as we sat around a table playing a friendly game of poker, drinking a friendly bottle of scotch, the conversation tipped scales from the nothings of life to a discussion about slavery.
“Some men are born to be slaves. Aristotle himself said so,” a man remarked.
“Nonsense. No man is born anything but a man. Naked and free,” John shot back.
The man glared at John. His hateful eyes gleamed with the joy of riling up an abolitionist. John threw the first punch, a right hook that landed right on the man’s left cheekbone. He fell immediately, his friends jumping to his defense. But there was to be no more trouble.
“Why do you punch first?” I asked John later that night.
“I shouldn’t. Been better lately. But that smug man deserved it.”
John hated the type of man he punched. He was of wealth, educated, had all the means to help society progress, to help cure ills instead of perpetuating them. And John especially hated any man that said another could be or should be enslaved.
I noticed her immediately. She was tall and slender with long blond hair and intense blue eyes, cheeks that sunk in a bit, and a thin prominent nose. Her face was dirtied, which made her seem more beautiful. She was with three men, but none looked to be her husband. They all worked and mined, barking orders at one another. By the looks of it, they were a family, all siblings who made the trek together.
John noticed me gazing away at her. “Want me to introduce you?” He asked.
“To whom?” I sheepishly replied.
He threw a rock at me.
“After all we’ve been through, you still have the nerve to think I don’t know when a women captures your heart. Those are her brothers. The tall one is Thomas. They’re from South Carolina. An abolitionist family. I met him last week. Good guy.”
“What’s she doing out here?”
“Apparently, she’s the ringleader,” John replied with a smirk. “She was ready to go on her own, so the brothers joined to make sure she’s safe.”
Classic John, knows everyone and at least the cursory details of their life.
“Tonight we’ll go to the saloon and I’ll introduce you there.”
“Samantha, this is my dear friend, George. He thinks you’re beautiful and he might be in love. He’d like to buy you a drink if that’s ok. But go easy on him, he hasn’t spent much time with a woman in a while.”
“Well hello, George. Would you have come over if not for your friend?”
“An honest one. I like that. Let’s go have a drink.”
We ordered drinks and took a table in the corner of the bar.
“So what’d you do in life before coming here?” she asks.
“I was a scientist. How about you? John tells me you’re an abolitionist.”
“Well I was a teacher. But, yes, an abolitionist too. Our house is on the underground railroad. Ma and pop have been helping enslaved folks escape for as long as I can remember.”
“Why did you leave that life to come here?”
“Heartbreak. The man I was married to decided he was in love or in lust or whatever he wanted to call his doings. I walked into our home one day and there they were on the bed together. He hadn’t touched me in weeks and I stood there watching him kiss her all over, her moaning and hollering wild. I walked out, went straight to my parents home, told them what happened without the details. Daddy went to get his shotgun. Imagine, a pacifist, we didn’t even have ammo for the one lonely gun in our home. Never seen him so riled up in my life. But I stopped him. Told him there was good reason for this, that we were a family of faith, but that I couldn’t be in that town any more now. I needed to leave. He sent for my brothers, triplets who were just starting to see hair on their face, told them they were to watch over me on whatever adventure I had in my mind. They’re younger, but their protectors, all of them. Now we’re here. And you?”
“Heartbreak too, but different. I was happily married. My wife and I met through John. She was his cousin. We met at a birthday while John and I were freshman in college. I’d go out to visit her as often as she would let me. She was in college at the time too. We’d study together, she was much smarter than I. Understood everything from math to literature to Latin. Whenever I had a question she always had an answer. Much of what I accomplished in school was because she helped me. Even the first time I kissed her she had to help me. She was my best friend. When she became pregnant I thought life was perfect. She and I, our families and friends nearby, work I loved, and a child on the way. Then she died. Passed away while giving birth. Baby died as well. I spent months mulling around in sorrow, no understanding of how to make life better, not even certain I wanted to. One day I was reading about gold miners heading west. Figured why not. So packed some belongings and came here.”
“And what about John?”
“He joined without telling me he was going to. Was at the boat dock with a ticket when I arrived.”
They didn’t tell us that mining for gold was a profession of patience. I suppose we should have known. But venturing west was never about the gold for John, nor I. Two weeks into mining and the time came for us to talk about our new California life.
“This mining for gold isn’t for us, is it?” I asked him.
“I don’t think so,” he said with a smile.
We both enjoyed being out. For me, this was cleaning my soul, for John, a chance to experience a new kind of wild life. But neither of us craved nor needed money, and after months at sea, weeks in California, we both yearned for bits of our old life. We decided to make our way back to San Francisco, rent a home, and take some time to our joys. He missed books, and I missed chemistry. We wanted to explore the city, see what a new growing center was like, see if there were ways for us to contribute. Maybe all of our readings of social and political theory could be of use in this newfound place.
We rented a small home near the bay, with pristine water views, close to restaurants and happenings. Books were hard to come by, so with time, John decided to open a bookstore. I started a chemistry lab. We bought a two-floor building; he took the first floor for the store, I took the second.
Samantha would come to visit occasionally, and I’d head up to the mines for a few days at a time as well. She had few expectations for how our relationship should be. And without family or friends on either side, there was little pressure for us to do anything but enjoy time together. We explored the city, the views that seemed never-ending. A year later, we married. John was once again my best man.
- “Golden Sunrise” is a historical fiction short story. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.
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