Keep on Steppin’ — The man who walked 481 miles to see a sick friend
. . . At our home he [Shorty Harris] lay on his back for weeks, fed with a spoon. Always talking of putting another town on the map. Always losing a million dollars a day. He was miraculously but slowly recovering when an Associated Press dispatch bearing a Lone Pine date made front page headlines with an announcement of his death.
Though the report was quickly corrected, his presence at our house brought reporters, photographers, old friends, and the merely curious. At the time the Pacific Coast Borax Company’s N.B.C. program was featuring stories based on his experiences over a nation-wide hook-up. Among the callers also were moguls of mining and tycoons of industry who had stopped at the Ballarat cabin to fall under the spell of his ever ready yarns.
Among these guests, one stands out.
It was a hot summer day when I saw on the lawn what appeared to be a big bear, because the squat, bulky figure was enclosed in fur. Answering the door bell I looked into twinkling eyes and an ingratiating smile. “They told me in Ballarat that Shorty Harris was here.” I invited him in.
“I’ll just shed this coat,” he said, stripping off the bearskin garment. “… sorta heavy for a man going on 80.” He laid it aside. “It’s double lined. Fur inside and out. You see, I sleep in it. Crossed three mountain ranges in that coat before I got here. May as well take this other one off too.” He removed another heavy overcoat, revealing a cord around his waist. “Keep this one tied close. Less bulky….”
Under a shorter coat was a heavy woolen shirt and his overalls concealed two pairs of pants. He went on: “I was with Shorty at Leadville. My name’s Pete Harmon. We ought to be rich—both of us. Why, I sold a hole for $2500 in 1878. Thought I was smart. They’ve got over $100,000,000 outa that hole. I was at Bridgeport when I heard Shorty was sick, so I says, ‘I’ll just step down to Ballarat and see him.’ (The ‘step’ was 298 miles.) When I got there Bob Warnack tells me he’s in Los Angeles. When I get there they tell me he’s with you. So I just stepped out here.”
He had “stepped” 481 miles to see his friend.
I ushered him in and left them alone. After an hour I noticed Pete outside, smoking. I went out and urged him to return and smoke inside, but he refused. “It’s not manners,” he insisted.
Later I happened to look out the window and saw him empty the contents of a small canvas sack into his hand. There were a few dimes and nickels and two bills. He unfolded the currency. One was a twenty. The other, a one. He put the coins in the sack and came inside. A few moments later, from an adjacent room I heard his soft, lowered voice: “Shorty, I’m eatin’ reg’lar now and got a little besides. I reckon you’re kinda shy. You take this.”
“No—no, Pete. I’m getting along fine….”
I fancy there was a scurry among the angels to make that credit for Pete Harmon.
Late in the afternoon, Pete donned his coats. “I’d better be going. I’ve got a lotta things on hand. A claim in the Argus. When the money comes in, well—I always said I was going to build a scenic railroad right on the crest of Panamint Range. Best view of Death Valley. It’ll pay. How far is it to San Diego?”
“A hundred and forty miles….”
“Well, since I’m this far along I’ll just step down and see my old partner. Take care of Shorty….” And down the road, he went.
With humility I watched his passage, hoping that the good God would go with him and somehow I felt that of all those with fame and wealth or of high degree who had gone from that house, none had left so much in my heart as Pete.
Adapted from; Chapter XVII Shorty Frank Harris Title: Loafing Along Death Valley Trails A Personal Narrative of People and Places Author: William Caruthers