Chapter 1 – The Letter
Katniss Everdeen unfolded the letter that her cousin Gale Hawthorne had hand-delivered. It had already been unfolded and re-folded so many times over the past few days that the thin paper was starting to tear at the edge of the crease. She and her sister Primrose simply couldn't stop reading it.
It was from their father. Two months ago he, his half-brother Samuel Hawthorne, and his twenty-year-old nephew Gale had left their small farms in Oregon to travel down to California territory in search of gold.
The trip wasn't taken as an idle whim. Earlier that year, in January, a carpenter named James Marshall had discovered gold in the American River in California's Sacramento Valley. Marshall had been building a sawmill for John Sutter, at the time. Both men had tried to keep the discovery secret, but word got out. It wasn't long before the news had spread northward to Oregon.
At first Gale had begged his parents to let him join some other young men in the area who were making the four-week journey on the Siskiyou Trail to the gold fields. The more Gale talked up the opportunity, however, the more his father and uncle grew interested. The result: both men decided to make the journey with Gale and the others to investigate the gold furor. It would be a fine adventure for the two fathers who were nearing middle age. They said they'd only stay a short time. They needed to return to harvest the crops, anyway.
"We'll pick up our fortune and head back home," Katniss' father had explained, as if all he had to do was bend over and pick up golden rocks that lay on the ground.
Their plan wasn't unique. In fact, more than half of the adult men in Oregon had dropped their responsibilities, and departed for California. Oregon was well situated geographically to take advantage of the news that was quickly spreading to the far corners of the United States, and even the world.
Whether or not Gale would remain in California when the two fathers returned had never been discussed. But a few days ago Gale had returned alone, bearing a letter for the Everdeens.
Twirling the end of her dark braid in her hand, Katniss read it yet again.
It's beautiful country here in California. Not that Oregon isn't. But there is gold just sitting in the rivers and streams waiting to be picked up. Yesterday I snatched up a nugget easily worth $150.
We live in a mining camp with about forty others. We all hail from Oregon. There is a town two miles from us called District 12. It is a small, rough place where we can get supplies. We jokingly refer to our camp as Dirty District 12, as it is filled with unwashed and unshaven men.
There is one woman, however, called Sae. She cooks for us. A young fellow, Peeta, does the baking. The rest of us spend dawn til dusk panning for gold in the river. In the evenings we play cards. Sometimes we sing old songs.
I don't see a reason to ever return to Oregon. I believe the Everdeen future is here in California. Pack up the necessities and sell everything else. Gale is giving Hazelle a similar letter from my brother Sam instructing her to do the same. Gale will assist with the sales and will guide all of you back here.
Be sure to bring your washtubs and sewing notions. There is much money to be made from the men who work this camp, and the other camps nearby. They will pay well for someone to wash and mend their clothes. Katniss, bring your bow along and your gun. There is much game in the area to be found. It would certainly improve Sae's stews.
God willing, I'll see all of you soon in Dirty District 12.
It had been such a surprise when Gale showed up at the front door without the others. He looked fine, happy, excited even. He handed his aunt the letter. Katniss' mother had appeared puzzled, but she hugged her nephew, his tall, lean body dwarfing her petite frame. She kissed his cheek and asked if he wanted something to eat.
But Gale had been in a hurry to leave. He wanted to go home and see his mother Hazelle, and his brothers, fourteen-year-old Rory and ten-year-old Vick, and his sister Posy, who was only seven. He said he'd return later. Katniss' mother told him to bring his family back for dinner. Gale had nodded.
As soon as Gale had left, her mother unfolded the letter and read it silently. Her lips at first formed a smile, but it quickly turned into a frown. By the time she had finished reading, her lips were pursed. Her mother had thrown the letter down and retreated to her bedroom.
Katniss was glad Gale had already gone by then. She was embarrassed by her mother's dramatic outbursts. It wasn't easy having such a mother, a woman prone to melancholia.
She picked up the letter from where it had fallen, curious to learn what had upset her mother. Prim stood next to her and the two girls read silently together. When they were done, Prim had turned to ask, "Are we really going to California?"
"It appears so little duck."
Gale had returned later with his mother Hazelle and his siblings. Katniss had forgotten all about her mother's dinner invitation to her Hawthorne cousins, and was flustered when they appeared. Her mother was still in the bedroom, lying on the bed staring off into space.
Quickly, Katniss pulled more potatoes out of the bucket that sat on the shelf and cut them up, adding them to the stew pot that hung over the fire.
Hazelle joined her mother in the bedroom, gently closing the rough-hewn door behind her. Gale sat down on the bench at the table facing the fireplace.
"What's it like?" Katniss asked, sitting down to talk.
She nodded and he began to speak. He told her of the mining camp where they lived. "Our group joined up with some others when we got there, but all of us hail from Oregon," he said. "We live in tents. We eat together. We mine the riverbed. We help each other out."
"Are there other families there?" Katniss asked.
Gale shook his head. "There's only one woman, Sae. She's married to one of the miners. There aren't any kids."
"I don't know Gale," Katniss hesitated. "This doesn't seem like such a good idea. How are we going to live in tents? It will be winter in a few months." She raised her arm and pointed at Prim, Rory, Vick, and Posy who were sitting there, quietly listening to their conversation. "What about school? What were our fathers thinking?"
"Katniss, there is so much gold lying on the ground, we'll all be rich. Your father picked up a nugget worth $150 one morning. That's nearly five months wages. With that kind of fortune lying around who needs school?"
"We'll bring our books," Prim interrupted. "I can teach them."
Rory snorted. "You can't teach me nothing I don't already know. I'm going to get me some gold."
Vick nodded in agreement. Only Posy seemed not to have an opinion.
Katniss shook her head. She understood why her mother was upset. Her father was a dreamer. Six years ago, he had persuaded Katniss' mother to leave her large extended family in Missouri and travel 2,000 miles by covered wagon train to settle in Oregon. Katniss had been twelve years old then, and Prim, eight. She had fond memories of the trip, spending her days out-of-doors walking alongside the wagon with her mother and Prim.
But it had been a difficult and dangerous journey. Many people had gotten sick and died. There had been a couple of accidents. One boy had been crippled when a wagon wheel had crushed his leg.
Once they arrived in Oregon, her family had to start all over again, clear the land, build a house, purchase and tend livestock, and plant crops to survive. If it hadn't been for the help of their Hawthorne relatives, who arrived the following year by wagon train, the Everdeens wouldn't have made it.
The two families had worked together to establish themselves. It had been a struggle and as the oldest children in each family, she and Gale had taken on many adult responsibilities at an early age. They acted as hunting partners and kept their families fed while their fathers had done more of the necessary heavy labor.
But over the past year, her father had been complaining. Oregon was getting too crowded he said. Just two years ago, in 1846, Great Britain had ceded ownership of Oregon to the United States. More and more Americans were arriving every day. In fact, the United States government was planning to grant Oregon territorial status in just a few months.
She looked around at the home her father had built. It was strong and sturdy. Their lives were settled. Why was her father always looking for the next big thing? Why couldn't he be content?
She was eighteen years old. What kind of future could she expect living in a mining camp with a bunch of unwashed and unshaven men? Meet and marry a man who was exactly like her father? And what of Prim's future? She shuddered to think of her sweet fourteen-year-old sister living under such crude conditions and becoming a laundress or seamstress for the miners.
Katniss had once asked her mother why she agreed to move to Oregon. Her mother had said she did it for love. Was that love strong enough to carry them to California now? One thing Katniss was certain of - she wasn't going to fall into the same trap her mother did. She was never going to fall in love. She knew it was inevitable she'd marry someday. There weren't any other choices available for decent woman in 1848. But even if she had to marry, she'd never give her heart away.
When dinner was cooked, she ladled the stew into tin bowls and gave everyone a spoon. Even though Prim called, their mother and aunt didn't leave the other room. Katniss insisted that everyone eat anyway, without waiting for their mothers.
It was nearly an hour later when her aunt exited the room alone.
"You're mother isn't hungry," Hazelle said. Katniss gave her aunt some stew to eat.
Her aunt ate quickly, then left with her children.
A couple of days later, Katniss' mother summoned the strength to get out of bed and face the tasks ahead. The next few days were busy ones as both families decided what to pack for their journey and what to leave behind.
The Siskiyou Trail, which was the route to California, was a rugged one. They only dared take a small cart. Everything needed had to be carried by mules or horses. Finding buyers of their farms was impossible, though. Too many men had left the area to travel to the gold fields. Both families ended up selling their livestock at a loss to their neighbors, abandoning their homes and leaving the crops in the fields to rot.
They packed up some basic household goods, clothing, and plenty of extra food. Gale had explained that the cost of everything was much higher in California.
Finally, a week after Gale returned, they were ready to leave. "It's like traveling to Oregon all over again," Katniss' mother complained.
"At least it's a shorter trip," Hazelle sighed. She was just as upset as her sister-in-law about their husbands' decision, but she seemed to take it in her stride. "We'll all be together again. Who knows, they might strike it rich."
Her mother managed a feeble smile.
The two families traveled nearly twenty miles most days. They spent their evenings sleeping in two large tents, which would become their new homes. They had to hurry. It was already early October and they didn't want to get caught in the mountains if it snowed.
This was the same route Katniss' father and uncle and cousin had taken two months earlier. Gale had returned via an even shorter route, which involved traveling 140 miles to the coast of California and taking a ship from San Francisco that sailed up to the Oregon coast. Unfortunately the two families didn't have the money to take that mode of transport to California because of the expense. Katniss silently fumed that her father had bragged about his gold nugget in the letter, but didn't send along any money to fund the more expensive route.
After nearly five weeks of travel, they arrived at their destination – the Dirty District 12 camp.
In the distance she saw a swath of canvas tents, in a variety of hues. She took a deep breath. The air smelled of pine. The surrounding landscape was very different from the lushness of Oregon. Here was sandy soil, bushy plants, towering oak trees and large pines. She could hear the rush of water nearby that must be a river, but she couldn't see it yet.
As they approached the camp they came upon a makeshift outdoor kitchen. A large fire was burning with iron rod fixed across the top. A large pot hung from it. An older woman, her skin brown and wrinkled by the sun, was standing nearby.
There was a stocky, blond-haired man laboring near a small cook stove.
"Hey Peeta," Gale called out.
The man turned toward Gale. His jaw was flecked with stubble. His bright blue eyes opened wide when he saw all of them standing there. He took in the group quickly. Katniss thought she saw a look of surprise cross his face for a moment when he saw her and Prim, but it was so quick, that she wondered if she had imagined it. He stepped away from the stove and limped toward Gale.
The expression on his face was solemn. A shiver went down her back. Even though Katniss didn't know him, something in his manner told her that he bore bad news.
"There's been sickness in the camp," he addressed Gale. "Your dad and your uncle are pretty bad."
"Where are they?" Katniss' mother ran forward, stretching her arm to grab at the blond-haired man. He took a nervous step back, nearly stumbling over.
"In their tent." He pointed toward the far end of the camp.
"I'll show you," Gale said, as he sprang ahead to lead the way.
Her mother turned toward her two daughters. "Wait here with your cousins."
She and Hazelle hurried after Gale.
The man watched Gale and the two older women rush off, then turned back to stare at the others left behind.
An awkward moment of silence followed, until he spoke. "Are you hungry? I just made some bread."
Author's Note: The Argonauts were a band of heroes in Greek mythology that accompanied Jason in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. The people who came to California in search of gold, also referred to themselves as Argonauts.
The gold miners of 1848 were mainly from California, Oregon and other near-by areas, like Northern Mexico. It wasn't until 1849 that people from all over the United States and the world finally arrived in California to search for gold.
Melancholia was the term used to describe depression in the 19th century.