“I wonder if you two have had the pleasure of dining in our fair city? But no, I would know if you had, for your faces would be bloodless, and you would be muttering ceaseless insults to God in Heaven.”
Charlie said, “I paid twenty-five dollars for a whore in Mayfield.”
The man said, “You will pay that same amount to simply sit at the bar with them in San Francisco. To lie down with one, expect to put up a minimum of a hundred dollars.”
“What man would pay that?” I asked.
“They are lining up to pay it. The whores are working fifteen-hour shifts and are said to make thousands of dollars per day. You must understand, gentlemen, that the tradition of thrift and sensible spending has vanished here. It simply does not exist anymore. For example, when I arrived this last time from working my claim I had a sizable sack of gold dust, and though I knew it was lunacy I decided to sit down and have a large dinner in the most expensive restaurant I could find. I had been living on the cold ground for three straight months, surviving on trout and pork fat and more trout. My spine was twisted from labor and I was utterly desperate for some type of warmth and pomp, a touch of velvet, and damn the cost. So it was that I ate a decent-sized, not particularly tasty meal of meat and spuds and ale and ice cream, and for this repast, which would have put me back perhaps half a dollar in my hometown, I paid the sum of thirty dollars in cash.”
Charlie was disgusted. “Only a moron would pay that.”
“I agree,” said the man. “One hundred percent I agree. And I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”
Down the beach a half mile I noticed an enormous pulley system made of tall timbers and thick rope set back from the waterline; this was being used to run a steam-sailer ship aground. A man in a broad-brimmed black hat and tailored black suit was whipping a team of horses to turn the winch. I asked the chicken man about the purpose of this operation and he said, “Here is someone with the same ambition as Smith, but with brains as well. That man in the hat has claimed the abandoned boat as his own, and is having it dragged to a sliver of land he had the foresight to buy some time ago. He will shore the boat upright and lease out its quarters to boarders or shopkeepers and make himself a speedy fortune. A lesson for you men: Perhaps the money is not to be made in the rivers themselves, but from the men working them. There are too many variables in removing gold from the earth. You need courage, and luck, and the work ethic of a pack mule. Why bother, with so many others already at it, piling into town one on top of the other and in a great hurry to spend every last granule?”
“Why do you not open a shop yourself?” I asked.
The question surprised him, and he took a moment to consider what the answer might be. When it came to him, a sandess appeared in his eyes and he shook his head. “I’m afraid my role in all this is settled,” he said.
I was going to ask which role he was referring to when I heard a noise on the wind, a muffled crunching or cracking in the distance, followed by a whistling sound cutting through the thick ocean air. One of the pulley ropes had snapped, and I saw the man in the black suit standing over a horse lying on its side in the sand. That he was not whipping the horse informed me it was dying or dead.
“It is a wild time here, is it not?” I said to the man.
“It is wild. I fear it has ruined my character. It has certainly ruined the characters of others.” He nodded, as though answering himself. “Yes, it has ruined me.”
“How are you ruined?” I asked.
“How am I not?” he wondered.
“Couldn’t you return to your home to start over?”
He shook his head. “Yesterday I saw a man leap from the roof of the Orient Hotel, laughing all the way to the ground, upon which he fairly exploded. He was drunk they say, but I had seen him sober shortly before this. There is a feeling here, which if it gets you, will envenom your very center. It is a madness of possibilities. That leaping man’s final act was the embodiment of the collective mind of San Francisco. I understood it completely. I had a strong desire to applaud, if you want to know the truth.”
“I don’t understand the purpose of this story,” I said.
“I could leave here and return to my hometown, but I would not return as the person I was when I left,” he explained. “I would not recognize anyone. And no one would recognize me.” Turning to watch the town, he petted his fowl and chuckled. A single pistol shot was heard in the distance; hoofbeats; a woman’s scream, which turned to cackling laughter. “A great, greedy heart!” he said, then walked toward it, disappearing into it. Down the beach, the man with the whip stood away from the dead horse, staring out at the bay and the numberless masts. He had removed his hat. He was unsure, and I did not envy him.