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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter I

A Foretaste of Things to Come

In the newspaper office where the writer worked, was a constant parade of adventurers. Talented press agents; promoters; moguls of mining and prospectors who, having struck it rich, now lived grandly in palatial homes, luxurious hotels or impressive clubs. In their wake, of course, was an engaging breed of liars, and an occasional adventuress who by luck or love had left a boom town crib to live thereafter “in marble halls with vassals” at her command. All brought arresting yarns of Death Valley.

View from Aguereberry Point
Death Valley view from Aguereberry Point

For 76 years this Big Sink at the bottom of America had been a land of mystery and romantic legend, but there had been little travel through it since the white man’s first crossing. “I would have starved to death on tourists’ trade,” said the pioneer Ralph (Dad) Fairbanks.

More than 3,000,000 people lived within a day’s journey in 1925, but excepting a few, who lived in bordering villages and settlements, those who had actually been in Death Valley could be counted on one’s fingers and toes. The reasons were practical. It was the hottest region in America, with few water holes and these far apart. There were no roads—only makeshift trails left by the wagons that had hauled borax in the Eighties. Now they were little more than twisting scars through brush, over dry washes and dunes, though listed on the maps as roads. For the novice it was a foolhardy gamble with death. “There are easier ways of committing suicide,” a seasoned desert man advised.

I had been up and down the world more perhaps than the average person and this seemed to be a challenge to one with a vagabond’s foot and a passion for remote places. So one day I set out for Death Valley.

At the last outpost of civilization, a two-cabin resort, the sign over a sand-blasted, false-fronted building stressed: “Free Information. Cabins. Eats. Gas. Oil. Refreshments.”

Needing all these items, I parked my car and walked into a foretaste of things-to-come. The owner, a big, genial fellow, was behind the counter using his teeth to remove the cork from a bottle labeled “Bourbon”—a task he deftly accomplished by twisting on the bottle instead of the cork. “I want a cabin for the night,” I told him, “and when you have time, all the free information I can get.”

“You’ve come to headquarters,” he beamed as he set the bottle on the table, glanced at me, then at the liquor and added: “Don’t know your drinking sentiments but if you’d like to wet your whistle, take one on the house.”

While he was getting glasses from a cabinet behind the counter, a slender, wiry man with baked skin, coal-black eyes and hair came through a rear door, removed a knapsack strapped across his shoulders and set it in the farthest corner of the room. Two or three books rolled out and were replaced only after he had wiped them carefully with a red bandana kerchief. A sweat-stained khaki shirt and faded blue overalls did not affect an impression he gave of some outstanding quality. It may have been the air of self assurance, the calm of his keen eyes or the majesty of his stride as he crossed the floor.

My host glanced at the newcomer and set another glass on the table, “You’re in luck,” he said to me. “Here comes a man who can tell you anything you want to know about this country.” A moment later the newcomer was introduced as “Blackie.”

“Whatever Blackie tells you is gospel. Knows every trail man or beast ever made in that hell-hole, from one end to the other. Ain’t that right, Blackie?”

Without answering, Blackie focused an eye on the bottle, picked it up, shook it, watched the beads a moment. “Bourbon hell ... just plain tongue oil.”

After the drink my host showed me to one of the cabins—a small, boxlike structure. Opening the door he waved me in. “One fellow said he couldn’t whip a cat in this cabin, but you haven’t got a cat.” He set my suitcase on a sagging bed, brought in a bucket of water, put a clean towel on the roller and wiped the dust from a water glass with two big fingers. “When you get settled come down and loaf with us. Just call me Bill. Calico Bill, I’m known as. Came up here from the Calico Mountains.”

“Just one question,” I said. “Don’t you get lonesome in all this desolation?”

“Lonesome? Mister, there’s something going on every minute. You’d be surprised. Like what happened this morning. Did you meet a truck on your way up, with a husky young driver and a girl in a skimpy dress?”

“Yes,” I said. “At a gas station a hundred miles back, and the girl was a breath-taker.”

“You can say that again,” Bill grinned. “Prettiest gal I ever saw—bar none. She’s just turned eighteen. Married to a fellow fifty-five if he’s a day. He owns a truck and hauls for a mine near here at so much a load. Jealous sort. Won’t let her out of his sight. You can’t blame a young fellow for looking at a pretty girl. But this brute is so crazy jealous he took to locking her up in his cabin while he was at work. Fact is, she’s a nice clean kid and if I’d known about it, I’d have chased him off. I reckon she was too ashamed to tell anybody.

“Of course the young fellows found it out and just to worry him, two or three of ’em came over here to play a prank on him and a hell of a prank it was. They made a lot of tracks around his cabin doors and windows. He saw the tracks and figured she’d been stepping out on him. So instead of locking her in as usual, he began to take her to work with him so he could keep his eyes on her.

“Yesterday it happened. His truck broke down and this morning he left early to get parts, but he was smart enough to take her shoes with him. Then he nailed the doors and windows from the outside. Soon as he was out of hearing, somehow she busted out and came down to my store barefooted and asked me if I knew of any way she could get a ride out. ‘I’m leaving, if I have to walk,’ she says. Then she told me her story. He’d bought her back in Oklahoma for $500. She is one of ten children. Her folks didn’t have enough to feed ’em all. This old guy, who lived in their neighborhood and had money, talked her parents into the deal. ‘I just couldn’t see my little sisters go hungry,’ she said, and like a fool she married him.

“I reckon the Lord was with her. We see about three outside trucks a year around here, but I’d no sooner fixed her up with a pair of shoes before one pulls up for gas. I asked the driver if he’d give her a ride to Barstow. He took just one look. ‘I sure will,’ he says and off they went.

“You see what I mean,” Bill said, concluding his story. “Things like that. Of course we don’t watch no parades but we also don’t get pushed around and run over and tromped on.”

In the last twelve words Bill expressed what hundreds have failed to explain in pages of flowered phrase—the appeal of the desert.

Soon I was back at the store. Bill and Blackie, over a new bottle were swapping memories of noted desert characters who had highlighted the towns and camps from Tonopah to the last hell-roarer. The 14great, the humble, the odd and eccentric. Through their conversation ran such names as Fireball Fan; Mike Lane; Mother Featherlegs; Shorty Harris; Tiger Lil; Hungry Hattie; Cranky Casey; Johnny-Behind-the-Gun; Dad Fairbanks; Fraction Jack Stewart; the Indian, Hungry Bill; and innumerable Slims and Shortys featured in yarns of the wasteland.

Blackie’s chief interest in life, Bill told me was books. “About all he does is read. Doesn’t have to work. Of course, like everybody in this country, he’s always going to find $2,000,000,000 this week or next.”

Though only incidental, history was brought into their conversation when Bill, giving me “free information” as his sign announced, told me I would be able to see the place where Manly crossed the Panamint.

“Manly never knew where he crossed,” Blackie said. “He tried to tell about it 40 years afterward and all he did was to start an argument that’s going on yet. That’s why I say you can write the known facts about Death Valley history on a postage stamp with the end of your thumb.”

The tongue oil loosened Calico Bill’s story of Indian George and his trained mountain sheep. “George had the right idea about gold. Find it, then take it out as needed. One time an artist came to George’s ranch and made a picture of the ram. When he had finished it he stepped behind his easel and was watching George eat a raw gopher snake when the goat came up. Rams are jealous and mistaking the picture for a rival, he charged like a thunderbolt.

“It didn’t hurt the picture, but knocked the painter and George through both walls of George’s shanty. George picked himself up. ‘Heap good picture. Me want.’ The fellow gave it to him and for months George would tease that goat with the picture. One day he left it on a boulder while he went for his horse. When he got back, the boulder was split wide open and the picture was on top of a tree 50 feet away.

“Somebody told George about a steer in the Chicago packing house which led other steers to the slaughter pen and it gave George an idea. One day I found him and his goat in a Panamint canyon and asked why he brought the goat along. ‘Me broke. Need gold.’ Since he didn’t have pick, shovel, or dynamite, I asked how he expected to get gold.

“‘Pick, shovel heap work,’ George said. ‘Dynamite maybe kill. Sheep better. Me show you.’ He told me to move to a safe place and after scattering some grain around for the goat, George scaled the boulder. It was big as a house. A moment later I saw him unroll the picture and with strings attached, let it rest on one corner of the big rock. Then holding the strings, he disappeared into his blind higher up. Suddenly he made a hissing noise. The Big Horn stiffened, saw the picture, lowered his head and never in my life have I seen such a crash. Dust filled the air and fragments fell for 10 minutes. When I went over George was gathering 15nuggets big as goose eggs. ‘White man heap dam’ fool,’ he grunted. ‘Wants too much gold all same time. Maybe lose. Maybe somebody steal. No can steal boulder.’”

The “tongue oil” had been disposed of when Blackie suggested that we step over to his place, a short distance around the point of a hill. “Plenty more there.”

Bill had told me that as a penniless youngster Blackie had walked up Odessa Canyon one afternoon. Within three days he was rated as a millionaire. Within three months he was broke again. Later Blackie told me, “That’s somebody’s dream. I got about $200,000 and decided I belonged up in the Big Banker group. They welcomed me and skinned me out of my money in no time.”

It was Blackie who proved to my satisfaction that money has only a minor relation to happiness. His house was part dobe, part white tufa blocks. On his table was a student’s lamp, a pipe, and can of tobacco. A book held open by a hand axe. Other books were shelved along the wall. He had an incongruous walnut cabinet with leaded glass doors. Inside, a well-filled decanter and a dozen whiskey glasses and a pleasant aroma of bourbon came from a keg covered with a gunny sack and set on a stool in the corner.

“This country’s hard on the throat,” he explained.

Blackie’s kingdom seemed to have extended from the morning star to the setting sun. He had been in the Yukon, in New Zealand, South Africa, and the Argentine. Gold, hemp, sugar, and ships had tossed fortunes at him which were promptly lost or spent.

For a man who had found compensation for such luck, there is no defeat. Certainly his philosophy seemed to meet his needs and that is the function of philosophy.

It was cool in the late evening and he made a fire, chucked one end of an eight-foot log into the stove and put a chair under the protruding end. Bill asked why he didn’t cut the log. “Listen,” Blackie said, “you’re one of 100 million reasons why this country is misgoverned. Why should I sweat over that log when a fire will do the job?... That book? Just some fellow’s plan for a perfect world. I hope I’ll not be around when they have it.

“The town of Calico? It was a live one. When John McBryde and Lowery Silver discovered the white metal there, a lot of us desert rats got in the big money. In the first seven years of the Eighties it was bonanza and in the eighth the town was dead.”

But the stories of fortunes made in Mule and Odessa Canyons were of less importance to him than a habit of the town judge. “Chewed tobacco all the time and swallowed the juice, ‘If a fellow’s guts can’t 16stand it,’ he would say, ‘he ought to quit,’ and he’d clap a fine on anybody who spat in his court.

“Never knew Jack Dent, did you? Englishman. Now there was a drinking man. Said his only ambition was to die drunk. One pay day he got so cockeyed he couldn’t stand, so his pals laid him on a pool table and went on with their drinking. Every time they ordered, Jack hollered for his and somebody would take it over and pour it down him. ‘Keep ’em comin’,’ he says. ‘If I doze off, just pry my jaws open and pour it down.’

“The boys took him at his word. Every time they drank, they took a drink to Jack. When the last round came they took Jack a big one. They tried to pry his lips open but the lips didn’t give. Jack Dent’s funeral was the biggest ever held in the town.

“Bill was telling you I made a million there, and every now and then I hear of somebody telling somebody else I made a million in Africa. And another in the Yukon. The truth is, what little I’ve got came out of a hole in a whiskey barrel instead of a mine shaft.

“A few years back a strike was made down in the Avawatz that started a baby gold rush. I joined it. A fellow named Gypsum came in with a barrel of whiskey, thinking there’d be a town, but it didn’t turn out that way. Gypsum had no trouble disposing of his liquor and stayed around to do a little prospecting. One day when I was starting for Johannesburg, he asked me to deliver a message to a bartender there. Gypsum had a meat cleaver in his hand and was sharpening it on a butcher’s steel to cut up a mountain sheep he’d killed.

“‘Just ask for Klondike and tell him to send my stuff. He’ll understand. Tell him if he doesn’t send it, I’m coming after it.’

“I didn’t know at the time that Gypsum had killed three men in honest combat and that one of them had been dispatched with a meat cleaver.

“I delivered the message verbatim. Klondike looked a bit worried. ‘What’s Gypsum doing?’ he asked. ‘When I left,’ I said, ‘he was sharpening a meat cleaver.’ Klondike turned white. ‘I’ll have it ready before you go.’

“When I called later, he told me he’d put Gypsum’s stuff in the back of my car. When I got back to camp and Gypsum came to my tent to ask about it, I told him to get it out of the car, which was parked a few feet away. Gypsum went for it and in a moment I heard him cussing. I looked out and he was trying to shoulder a heavy sack. Before I could get out to help him, the sack got away from him and burst at his feet. The ground was covered with nickles, dimes, quarters, halves. ‘There’s another sack.’ Gypsum said. ‘The son of a bitch has sent me $2500 in chicken feed. Just for spite.’

“Because it was a nuisance, Gypsum loaned it to the fellows about, all of whom were his friends. They didn’t want it but took it just to accommodate Gypsum. There was nothing to spend it for. Somebody started a poker game and I let ’em use my tent because it was the largest. I rigged up a table by sawing Gypsum’s whiskey barrel in two and nailing planks over the open end. Every night after supper they started playing. I furnished light and likker and usually I set out grub. It didn’t cost much but somebody suggested that in order to reimburse me, two bits should be taken out of every jackpot. A hole was slit in the top. It was a fast game and the stakes high. It ran for weeks every evening and the Saturday night session ended Monday morning.

“Of course some were soon broke and they began to borrow from one another. Finally everybody was broke and all the money was in my kitty. I took the top off the barrel and loaned it to the players, taking I.O.U.’s, I had to take the top off a dozen times and when it was finally decided there was no pay dirt in the Avawatz, I had a sack full of I.O.U.’s.

“Once I tried to figure out how many times that $2500 was loaned, but I gave up. I learned though, why these bankers pick up a pencil and start figuring the minute you start talking. They are on the right end of the pencil.”

Early the next morning while Bill was servicing my car for the trip ahead, with some tactful mention of handy gadgets he had for sale, we noticed Blackie coming with a man who ran largely to whiskers. “That’s old Cloudburst Pete,” Bill told me. “Another old timer who has shuffled all over this country.”

“How did he get that moniker?” I asked.

“One time Pete came in here and was telling us fellows about a narrow escape he had from a cloudburst over in the Panamint. Pete said the cloud was just above him and about to burst and would have filled the canyon with a wall of water 90 feet high. A city fellow who had stopped for gas, asked Pete how come he didn’t get drowned. Pete took a notion the fellow was trying to razz him. ‘Well, Mister, if you must know, I lassoed the cloud, ground-hitched it and let it bust....’”

After greeting Pete, Bill asked if he’d been walking all night.

“Naw,” Pete said. “Started around 11 o’clock, I reckon. Not so bad before sunup. Be hell going back. But I didn’t come here to growl about the weather. I want some powder so I can get started. Found color yesterday. Looks like I’m in the big money.”

“Fine,” Bill said. “I heard you’ve been laid up.”

“Oh, I broke a leg awhile back. Fell in a mine shaft. Didn’t amount to much.”

“I know about that, but didn’t you get hurt in a blast since then?”

“Oh that—yeh. Got blowed out of a 20-foot hole. Three-four ribs busted, the doc said. Come to think of it, believe he mentioned a fractured collar bone. Wasn’t half as bad as last week.”

“Good Lord ... what happened last week?”

“That crazy Cyclone Thompson. You know him ... he pulled a stope gate and let five-six tons of muck down on me. Nobody knew it—not even Cyclone. Wore my fingers to the bone scratching out. Look at these hands....”

Pete held up his mutilated hands. “They’ll heal but bigod—that pair of brand new double-stitched overalls won’t.”

“Well,” Bill chuckled, “you know where the powder is. Go in and get it.”

Bill and Blackie remained to see me off, each with a friendly word of advice. “Just follow the wheel tracks,” Bill said, as I climbed into my car and Blackie added: “Keep your eyes peeled for the cracker box signs along the edge of the road. You’ll see ’em nailed to a stake and stuck in the ground.”

A moment later I was headed into a silence broken only by the whip of sage against the car. Ahead was the glimmer of a dry lake and in the distance a great mass of jumbled mountains that notched the pale skies. Beyond—what?

I never dreamed then that for twenty-five years I would be poking around in those deceiving hills.

A Personal Narrative of People and Places
Published by Death Valley Publishing Co.
Ontario, California

A Foretaste of Things to Come
What Caused Death Valley?
Aaron and Rosie Winters
John Searles and His Lake of Ooze
But Where Was God?
Death Valley Geology
Indians of the Area
Desert Gold. Too Many Fractions
Romance Strikes the Parson
Greenwater-Last of the Boom Towns
The Amargosa Country
A Hovel That Ought To Be a Shrine
Sex in Death Valley Country
Shoshone Country. Resting Springs
The Story of Charles Brown
Long Man, Short Man
Shorty Frank Harris
A Million Dollar Poker Game
Death Valley Scotty
Odd But Interesting Characters
Roads. Cracker Box Signs
Lost Mines. The Breyfogle and Others
Panamint City. Genial Crooks
Indian George. Legend of the Panamint
Ballarat. Ghost Town
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