I know it don’t look like much, just a little beat-up cabin on the river, but let me tell you about this here river and what it means to me.
In time of drought, I’ve seen the river drop to just a few inches deep and barely a trickle wide. But it ain’t never quit on me completely. I’ve always been able to get enough to fill my canteen and water my horse. Around here, dependable water is more precious than gold, no matter what John Marshall thought when he saw those sparkles upstream in the water at Sutter’s Mill. So that makes me purty near rich, the way I see it.
Now in the spring, when the snow is melting up in the Sierras, this here river can get to be a real monster, running deep and fast and dangerous. That’s when I fill my canteen in a little cut I dug to give me a slower moving pool. And cold! That water comes down the mountain cold as ice, ’cause that’s what it was not too long before. You fall in that and you get too cold to swim real quick.
You see, that’s what happened to that man of mine. He fell right in when the river was high and the current carried him out into the main part of the flow and then around the bend. Didn’t take him long to stop hollering and drown – just too cold to swim back.
The circumstances? Well, let’s see, it was about late March or early April, near as I can remember. We had lost most of our cattle over the winter, ’cause the snow came so heavy and then froze so hard that they couldn’t get to the forage we had put out. Seemed like as fast as we tried to break up the ice, that was just how fast it froze again. That man, he just kept getting madder and madder with every carcass we found.
He started hitting the jug then, drinking deep and often. By the time March was coming to an end, he had started hitting me, too. That day, he had counted the cattle again and realized that three more were missing, either dead on the range or stolen. He was so mad, I was afraid he was gonna kill me.
“The river is running,” I told him. “Snow’s gone and we’ll get back on our feet, you’ll see. The ground will be warm enough to plant soon.” He just swung at me again, and I thought ‘I ain’t standing here to git beat.’
I ran out of the cabin and toward the river. I thought he’d stay inside where he had his jug and the fire, but he followed me. When he grabbed me by the arm and drew back his other hand in a fist, I got mad, plain old ordinary mad. I ducked when he swung. He missed and he was off-balance. As I stood up again, I shoved him, just trying to get clear of him, you know what I mean? But he was drunk and he fell into the river.
Now, there’s them as think I’m guilty of killing him, because I pushed against him. But the way I see it, I was acting in self-defense, trying to get free. It was his drinking that made him so ornery and trying to hit me and that’s what made him lose his balance. So I’d say it was his fault, kind of a’ accidental suicide, you know?
Anyway, as I was saying, this little cabin is what I got left. I sold the rest of the cattle and most of our land, just kept this little piece on the river. It’s been my home for all of my adult life, nigh on seventy years now. I live a quiet life, and I don’t need a whole lot of money. I made some good investments and they get me by. I can listen to the river singing as it tumbles over the rocks – that makes me real happy.
And if I get sad, I just walk on out there and remember how good it felt to watch him get swept around the bend.