Payback at Murderer’s Bar

Sunshine suddenly flooded through the open door of the cabin. I picked up the crutch my eldest, Enos, had fashioned from an alder branch and limped outside. Thick, dark clouds still roiled above the river as far as I could see, but off to the west a small gap between heaven and earth had given the setting sun a last brief opportunity to remind us of the glory of it’s existence.

It was a welcome sign. Rain had fallen in a steady downpour since yesterday morning, starting just after we’d finally finished work on the flume. All summer long nearly four hundred men, most new to California, had toiled together to this one end. We’d even hauled a horse-powered sawmill up from Sacramento to turn the trees of the canyon into lumber. When it looked like we weren’t going to finish on time we’d toted piles of canvas in by mule back and painstakingly stitched it across a wooden frame twelve feet wide by three feet high that stretched more than a mile downstream.

Murderer’s Bar, 1850

Using more heavy timber reinforced with rock, we’d built a wing dam a hundred yards upstream that crossed to the gravel of Murderer’s Bar where it hooked up with the flume. The whole thing was carefully contrived to direct the water down the canvas-covered chute so that we could mine the riverbed. Men had already pulled most of the gold from the bars and gullies above the waterline but an unimaginable bounty still lay at the bottom of the stream. During a short break from the rain this morning two men had dug out over nine pounds of gold before breakfast. Everyone was eager to get started.

The river had swollen quickly during the storm and brought a new power to the flow that could be seen clearly in the fury of the water tumbling over the falls above Murderer’s Bar. The rain had caused a lot of consternation here and men were busy piling more rock near the dam just to be sure it held. Still, we could use a few days of sun to dry the stream’s bed. Miners who’d been in California a while said September was way too early for a storm this strong and we could expect many more days as hot as any we’d seen all summer. They figured the sun would be back in all its might by morning.

For miles above the falls more men had joined together with the same purpose as we had, and more dams and flumes were now being built far upstream, even into the high mountains. The Middle Fork of the American River had proven to be as rich a mining site as Mormon Island or Hangtown, and thanks to our hard work a vast fortune now sat exposed in the belly of the river, leaving us awaiting only a favorable change in the weather to realize the goals of our long suffering summer of toil. Each man here fully expected a payback many times his expenditures in both hard cash and hot sweat.

Just as I turned to go back inside I saw Rawley, my youngest, coming up the hill wearing his black India rubber coat, a rain sopped felt hat, and britches and boots caked with mud. With his head down, never once looking up, hands jammed in his pockets, he kicked away a rock in his path and cursed. The boy was a handful, almost grown and headstrong. Sarah said he needed extra love. Maybe I didn’t have enough to spare.

“Evening, son. Supper’s almost ready. Where’s your brother?” I called out.

He looked up at me with a sneer. “Why should I care where Mister Enos Oates is?” he carped as he bulled past me and into the cabin.

Just then, with the sun still shining low on the horizon, the rain broke again, coming down hard and sudden. I ducked inside behind Rawley, pulling the door closed after me. He stood by his bunk, holding his rifle, checking to see if it was loaded.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

“Going hunting,” he growled, his words dripping with his rage.

“No you’re not,” I countered. “It’s raining like the dickens again. You can’t hunt an animal in a storm like this.”

“Depends on the animal,” he said, much too coldly.

“Put that gun down, right now.” I barked, my old anger starting to rise. “What happened between you and Enos?”

Rawley pulled the gun to his shoulder and sighted along the barrel. “What happened between you and your big brother, you ask?” He spat my words back, mocking me after all I’d done for him, after all his brother had done for him. “What always happens between me and your oldest son, your favorite son?” he continued. “’You’re not good enough to do this, Rawley. You’re not smart enough to figure that out, little brother. Just shut up and do as I tell you, jackass.’” His tone had grown louder and more sullen as he raged. He pulled the gun down and waved a hand over his head. “Well I’ve had it up to here. Now I’m going to end it once and for all. Get out of my way.”

“So you’re going to shoot your own brother.” I roared back. “Is that the answer? He’ll be dead and you’ll hang. What’ll that get anybody? How will your mother feel when she hears? It’ll kill her and you know it. Is that what you want?”

He spun away from me. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t take it anymore.” I heard the same whine in his voice I’d heard for years. His anger was spent now. He was done. I’d won again, but what would happen if one day I wasn’t here to stop him?

“Put the rifle down, Rawley,” I said softly. When he didn’t answer right off I hobbled over and took it from his hand. He didn’t resist. I knew he wouldn’t.

He collapsed on his bunk, his face to the wall, sulking like he always did after one of his set-tos with Enos. Sarah understood him. She could reason with him, calm him down, but he didn’t listen to me. As much as I loved him I reckon it wasn’t enough. It was times like this that I wished I’d left him in Ohio with his mother.

Miners cooking

I propped the rifle in the corner, limped over to the fireplace and rested my crutch against the chimney, built only from sticks and mud sitting on top of a flat stone firebox it still drew the smoke out well enough. The cabin itself was made of rough pine logs with the bark still on and roofed over with sod. It was barely big enough to sleep the three of us, but we had it better than many and I, for one, was grateful for that.

The stew had simmered all afternoon but the beef we’d gotten yesterday had been stringy and tough, the cow all skin and bones. I took a taste. Even the hours of boiling hadn’t helped much. Still it was all we had. It would have to do. Fortunately the flour I’d bought had been good quality and we would have enough bread for a while. I gave the pot a quick stir just as the door burst open and Enos strode in.

He shook the rain from his hat then pulled off the rubber coat as he stomped his boots, knocking mud onto the dirt floor. Six years older than Rawley, he’d grown into a fine man, tall and well built with keen eyes that pierced straight to the heart. A natural leader, men listened to him and did what he said. He’d taken control of one part of the work we’d done on the dam, overseeing the crew who had driven the pilings into the streambed then lined them with timbers and finally loaded rock on the waterfall side.

“Evening, Pa,” he said as he pulled up a stool opposite me.

“What happened with you and Rawley this time?” I asked without hesitation. Nothing hurt me worse than when my sons fought.

“You know how he is. He won’t listen to what you tell him to do. He’s always got another idea, a different way of doing things. He just can’t put his back into something and get it done. He kept after me till I had to slap him around some to shut him up.”

“You hit him first?” I asked with some fire in my tone. To me words would never hurt a man but the one who threw the first blow was always in the wrong.

“Well, after he shoved me, Pa. I couldn’t have that.”

“That’s a lie!” Rawley yelled from his bed. “You just hauled off and punched me. And it’s you who don’t listen. You’ve got to put more rock on the backside of the dam where the flume is. That’s the weak point. That’s where it’ll bust if too much water comes down river. Then the flume will float off like a giant canoe.”

I looked deep into Enos’ eyes. “Is what he says true?” I ask.

“I said he pushed me, Pa and he did.”

“Liar! See, Enos won’t listen to me about the dam!” Rawley yelled.

“Quiet, both of you. I’ll have no more of this.” I bellowed. “What about the dam busting at the flume like Rawley said, can that happen?”

“Pa, anything can happen. You know that. But Rawley’s got too many wild ideas, always reading, wanting to go that fancy school. He already thinks he’s an engineer. Nobody can tell if that dam will break or where. The men are tired. They worked hard all day in the storm. They need a break. The sun’ll be out tomorrow anyway.”

“What if you’re wrong, big brother?” Rawley hissed the words in that way he had of acting too big for his own britches and I could see Enos’ face darken. It’s no wonder he slapped the boy around some. Rawley could be like one of those little dogs that never stop nipping at your heels as you walk down the street, a real pain in the rump.


From somewhere outside the harsh squawks of a blue jay drowned out the sweet warble of the wrens. Bright light streaked through chinks in the log walls so I sat up, stretched my arms wide and yawned, then saw Enos on a stool pulling up his boots.

“How’s your ankle today, Pa?” he asked.

I bent my knee and felt my leg. “Better I think, the swelling’s down some,” I said.

He stood. “The rain’s gone. It’s a fine day and we’ve got gold to mine. Are you able to work?” he said as he walked across the room.

“Expect I can do something anyway. Aren’t you having breakfast?” I grabbed my crutch and pushed myself from my cot just as Enos jerked open the door.

“There’s too much to do, Pa. I’ll be back at noon.”

I noticed Rawley’s empty bunk. “Where’s your brother?” I called after him.

Enos stopped just beyond the opening. “Don’t know. He was gone when I woke. See you later,” he said and the door slammed shut behind him.

It wasn’t like Rawley to be up and about before anyone else. He usually slept as late as he could. But more important, his rifle was gone from the corner where I’d left it yesterday. A terrible fear crept up my spine. Maybe he really had gone hunting, and I’d be the last one to fault him for looking for fresh meat after that stringy beef we ate last night, but try as I might, I couldn’t shake a burning dread as malevolent as any thought to ever to intrude upon my mind. Could Rawley be planning to kill Enos like he’d threatened? Could I have failed both my sons so badly?

I rushed to the door as fast as my game leg would allow, flung it open and hobbled out. Sunshine flooded my eyes. I raised my hand to block the glare. The falls above Murderer’s Bar had grown into a frothing cataract, but the wing dam had held firm and the turbulent waters of the rain-swollen river cascaded down the flume exactly as planned.

Up and down the canyon men poured from shacks, shanties and tents, shovels in hand, racing for the empty riverbed, thirsting for the rewards that now lay at their feet. But nowhere could I could see any sign of Rawley, from the bend in the river far downstream all the way back up to the dam. Directly below our cabin Enos worked with two men, tossing ore into a rocker, then adding water to wash away the black sand in which the gold hid, leaving the heavier metal imbedded along cleats nailed to the bottom.

The frenzy of the men mining the streambed spread faster than a yawn in a country schoolhouse as one man after another thrust a fist high overhead in triumph at the discovery of a particularly large nugget. And I could feel the fever wax within me. I had to get to Enos, into the riverbed, and with my own bare hands pull out the gold that I’d dreamed of so often through the sweltering heat of the long summer. I had to personally experience the thrill of the ultimate redemption; the well-earned payback for all that was justly due me for the hardship I had endured.

I tucked the crutch tight under my arm and, ignoring the pangs that rippled up my leg each time my sprained foot hit the ground, I scuffled as best I could along the path that zigzagged down the canyon, my lust for wealth fueling an impatience as fierce as any I’d ever known. And then I saw him step from behind a boulder halfway to the dam. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it directly at Enos.

“Rawley!” I screamed with all the force my aging lungs could muster, but a low bass roar louder than that from a hundred riverboats swallowed whole my pitiful cry. Above Rawley a wall of water higher than a house loomed above the falls, then collapsed into the pond behind the dam, carrying with it a forest of timber from dozens of other wing dams and flumes swept away by an overwhelming onslaught rushing down from the mountains above.

A large wave washed into the dam, smashing apart on the rocks into a thick spray that showered over the miners working below. Men broke and ran for the bank, all except Enos, who headed for the dam, slogging through the thick mud of the river’s bottom. Rawley coolly followed him with the rifle and I hurried on toward my youngest son, limping badly but bent on stopping him before it was too late.

Timber, brush, mud and canvas continued to crash over the falls then washed up to the flume where it stuck. There it blocked the opening and reduced the flow of the water down the chute to a trickle. With nowhere else to go the swollen river quickly backed up behind the barrier into which we’d invested so much of our honest sweat.

Enos managed to climb up onto the flume just as water began to pour over the dam. He set himself atop the pile of debris now threatening to destroy all our hard work and pulled out whatever timber he could pry loose from the tangle and tossed it into the cataract below, where the water, already higher than two days ago, continued to rise.

I was almost to Rawley when he suddenly dropped the rifle and pointed. “The flume’s busted loose. It’s floating,” he yelled to anyone within earshot.

I stopped my gimpy hobble and turned to follow where his finger led. The canvas chute, now empty of water, had pulled free of its underpinnings and bobbed like a cork on the surface of the rapidly swelling stream. A slow undulation began that grew wider and more intense as the bloated level of the water reached farther downstream.

“It’s going to break free,” Rawley screamed and as soon as he spoke I heard timber connections all along the flume snap like twigs, allowing even wider swings in the chute. Then, with an ominous crack, the flume broke loose and slithered away down the flooded canyon like a cottonmouth snake on a millpond. The pile of debris that had blocked the chute, now unfettered at the dam and with Enos still on top, swung inland toward Murderer’s Bar and broke apart.

Try as he might, there was no way for Enos to keep his balance. He tumbled headlong into the powerful surge that roared through the now open gap where the flume had once been attached and disappeared beneath the churning murk. I stood there, unable to move, unable to think, unable to believe that my oldest son was gone, but nowhere on the surface of the flood was there any sign of him.

Then a cry arose from many throats together and all around me men pointed to the river, and there, in the middle of the floating debris pile, I could see Enos at last, face down, unmoving, washed downstream by the unstoppable flow of water, but because I stood well below the dam he was coming toward me. Only one thought filled my mind, no matter what, no matter how, I must save my son. I abandoned the zigzag path to the river and headed straight downhill as fast as my aching ankle would tolerate.

After only a few lumbering yards, with my eyes locked on Enos instead of the steep slope I’d dared navigate, my good foot caught on a root and I tumbled down the hill. Unhurt, save the remnants of my useless pride, and more determined than ever to rescue my oldest son, I pushed myself back on my feet. But before I could brave another step strong hands grabbed my arms, a finger thrust past my face and a voice at my side cried, “Look there, it’s Rawley.”

My eyes followed the thrusting finger to the edge of the river. There they locked on Rawley, stripped to his long johns, boots gone, as he dove headfirst into the foaming scumgullion. All around me voices cheered encouragement as my youngest son stroked his way across the muddy current towards Enos, then, almost as one, they cried a loud warning as a particularly large timber bore down on him as he swam. When Rawley ducked from sight my heart leapt to my throat. An anxious gasp rose from the crowd followed quickly by a breathless hush that to me seemed without end

Then Rawley’s head popped from the stream, in two strong strokes he was at Enos’ side and in no time had his older brother’s head out of the water. A quiet murmur began, much like the buzz of bees moving steadily closer, but when Rawley’s fist pumped high in the air a tremendous huzzah erupted that brought me more relief than any sound to ever come from man. Enos was alive.

A rope sailed into the stream. Rawley caught it and strong hands pulled them both ashore. They collapsed on the bank and Enos hacked the brown water from his lungs.

But when I finally got to them his eyes found mine. “I was wrong, Pa. Rawley was right. The dam broke just where he said it would. I should have listened to him.”

Rawley shook his head. “No, Enos, you were the boss. I should’ve kept my mouth shut. We couldn’t have stopped this anyhow. But now all our gold is gone.”

Enos studied the river a bit. “Yeah, but we’ll find enough gold to send you to that fancy school. You’ll be an engineer. I’ll work for you. Together we can build anything.”

Rawley’s face beamed and he looked up to me. “Does he mean it, Pa?”

“You bet he does.” And from deep in my heart I smiled, for the reconciliation of my sons was worth so much more to me than a payback of mere gold could ever be.



  1. What a fine story, John! Keep ’em coming!

  2. I enjoyed reading your story and the illustrations. Incidentally, there was a bar of that name on the Fraser River near Hope, BC

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