The Venice of the West
 About the Author/Artist
 Alternative History Timeline  
 Double Fiction Issue

Part I: Alta California
 I Meet Mark Twain
 I Meet John Sargent
 A Humorist, Not a Politician
 The Venice of the West
 The Fair Marina
 A Candide Character
 A Swan Among Geese

 So Much?
Gibralter the Egg Mule
 An American Vandal Abroad
 Daisy and Oscar
 A Chance Encounter
 Goya’s Studio
 Holy Relics

Part II: Sakrametska in Rossland
 Boundary Values
 The Unholy Family
 Boom Town
 New Dog, Old Tricks
 Commission of a Lifetime
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet

  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning


Gibralter the Egg Mule

Reprinted from the Atlantic Weekly, June 6, 1879
Mark Twain
Republic of Alta California

Dear Reader:

This curious town is situated athwart and within the Rio Petalumo. By that I mean that she has never been content to emulate drier and less fanciful sisters such as St. Louis or New Orleans, who merely huddle around their rivers in a companionable conspiracy of transport and trade. No indeed—through profligate dredging and canal building, Petalumo has invited the river into her very streets, transforming what would otherwise be a commonplace river hamlet into the Venice of the West.

Please do not dismiss this as a fancy. If you could see the watercolor sketch completed the other day by my countryman and fellow traveler, John Sargent, you would think it done in Italy a hundred years ago by Canaletto, were it not for the grain elevators and steam launches. So taken was young Master John with the aqueous potentialities of the scene that he perched several hours atop a reeking tailings barge to record his view of the Grand Turning Basin. When he returned to the hotel to show me his masterpiece, he was so daubed with mud and muck from the barge that the doorman refused him entrance. I had to pay a bellman to hose him off. I used to have spotted pup that would do the same thing: dig up a mole in the spring garden and proudly bring it to me in the drawing room, trailing dung and daffodils through the house.

Gondolas just like those in the original Venice ply the canals of Petalumo, and the young Mexican vaqueros de agua sing and shout in a perfect imitation of the Italian gondoliers, complete with maniacally insouciant airs and the obtuse arrogance of deposed dukes. I took passage on one of these gondolas late last night, bearing a sack of hard boiled eggs that were to be my breakfast. Observing the sloppy poling technique of the gondolier, I resolved to learn him a lesson in rivercraft. I placed an egg on the transom, grabbed the pole from the startled lad, and proceeded to show him how one could propel the boat so smoothly that the egg would never roll off into the water. Unfortunately my first few attempts were less than perfect, and I was soon out of eggs. The gentle reader will never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.

And so this morning I sit writing to you, hungry and wishing I had an egg. The egg is King here. From Petalumo to the coast stretch vast egg ranches. These huevos rancheros supply all the omelets and pickled bar eggs for San Francisco, Sacramento, and points East. Eggs are packed in straw and cooled with wet sacking, floated down the Rio Petalumo to San Francisco Bay, then up the Sacramento River, where they are off-loaded and packed into the Sierra Nevada gold fields by mule train.

These famous egg mules have backs as steady as a gyroscope. Their “skinners” equip them with pack frames in gimbals, and claim they could bring their fragile cargo safely through Armageddon. A sober and honest mule-skinner I met in a canal-side tavern told me a story about one such fabulous mule, a jug-headed specimen named “Gibralter,” for its stability.

Gibralter once carried fifty dozen eggs over the spine of the Sierras into the Mexican state of Nevada. At the height of the pass, an earthquake opened a chasm into which the hapless beast pitched headlong. Two days later the mule was spit out of a mineshaft in the eastern foothills, one hundred and forty-nine miles away. Nary an egg was broken, although Gibralter was skinned of more than half his hide and in fact became known as “Baldy” ever afterwards.

At first hearing about Baldy née Gibralter, I reckoned I had been sold a preposterous yarn, but I now believe it to be no more than the unvarnished truth, since its teller swore to me on the weeping eyes of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, an infallible guarantor of veracity in these parts.

Your Servant in Truth,
Mark Twain

  © Patrick Fanning, 2012


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