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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XI

The Amargosa Country

In Hellgate Pass I met Slim again, resting on the roadside, his burro browsing nearby. Slim, I may add here, already had a niche in Goldfield’s hall of fame. He had walked into a gambling house one day broke, thirsty, nursing a hangover, and hoping to find a friend who would buy him a drink. Though it was a holiday and the place crowded, he saw no familiar face, but while waiting he noticed the cashier was busy collecting the winnings from the tables. He also noticed that in order to save the time it required to unlock the door of the cage, the cashier would dump the gold and silver coins on the shelf at his wicker window, then for safety’s sake, shove it off to fall on the floor inside.

Slim watched the procedure awhile and with a sudden bright idea, sauntered out. A few moments later he returned through an alley with an auger wrapped in a tow sack, crawled under the house and soon a stream of gold and silver was cascading into Slim’s hat.

A lookout at a table nearest the cage, hearing a strange metallic noise, went outside to investigate and peeking under the floor, saw Slim without being seen. It was just too good to keep. Stealthily moving away, he spread the news and half of Goldfield was gathered about when Slim, his pockets bulging with his loot, crawled out only to face a jeering, heckling crowd.

Cornered like a rat in a cage, he couldn’t run; he couldn’t speak. He could only stand and grin and somehow the grin caught the crowd and instead of a lynching, Slim was handcuffed and led away and later the merciful judge who had been in the crowd declared Goldfield out of bounds for Slim and sent him on his way.

At no other place in the world except Goldfield, with its craving for life’s sunny side, could such an incident have occurred.

After greetings Slim confided that he was en route to a certain canyon, the location of which he wouldn’t even tell to his mother. 65There, not a cent less than $100,000,000 awaited him. No prospector worthy of the name ever bothers to mention a claim of less value. Not sure of the roads ahead, I asked him for directions.

“You’d better go down the valley,” he advised, pointing to a small black cloud above Funeral Range. “Regular cloudburst hatchery—these mountains.”

At a sudden burst of thunder we flinched and at another the earth seemed to tremble. Forked lightning was stabbing the inky blackness and I expected to see the mountains fall apart. “Something’s got to give,” Slim said. “Look at that lightning ... no letup.” Another roar rumbled and rolled over the valley. “God—” muttered Slim, “I haven’t prayed since I fell into a mine shaft full of rattlesnakes.”

As we watched the incessant play of lightning, Slim told me about his fall into the shaft: “Arkansas Ben Brandt was working about 100 yards away. Deaf as a lamp post, Ben is, but I kept praying and hollering and just when I’d given up, here comes a rope. You can argue with me all day but you can’t make me believe the Lord didn’t unstop old Ben’s ears.”

Slim gave me a final warning. “Take the road over the mountain when you come to the Shoshone sign. When you get there be sure to see Charlie before you go any farther.”

At every water hole where prospectors were gathered I’d heard someone tell someone else to see Charlie. At Furnace Creek I’d heard the vice president of the Borax Company tell an official of the Santa Fe railroad to see Charlie and only an hour before I met Slim I had stopped to give a tire patch to a young miner with a flat. While I waited to see that the patch stuck, I learned he was on his way to consult Charlie.

“My helper,” he confided, “jumped my claim after he learned I hadn’t done last year’s assessment work. That’s legal if a fellow’s a skunk but when he stole my wife and chased me off with my own shotgun, bigod—that’s different.” I suggested a lawyer. “I’ll see Charlie first....”

Naturally I became curious about this Charlie, who seemed to be a combination of Father Confessor and the Caliph Haroun Alraschid to all the desert. “Just who is Charlie?” I asked Slim.

“He runs the store at Shoshone. Tell him I’ll be down soon. I want him to handle my deal.” He slapped his burro and we parted—he for his $100,000,000, I to leave the country. Watching the spring in his step a moment, I got into my car and knew at last the why of those dark alluring canyons that ran up from the hungry land and hid in the hills. I knew why there are riches that nothing can take away and why rainbows swing low in the sky. The good God had made them so that fellows like Slim could climb one and ride.

Driving along I found myself trying to appraise the endless waste. Was it a blunder of creation, hell’s front yard or God’s back stairs? It was easy to understand the appeal of vast distances, of desert dawns and desert nights but what was it that made men “go desert”?

The answer was becoming clearer. Fellows like Slim had found God in a snake hole, or if you prefer—a way of life patterned with infinite precision to their needs. It is easy enough to tear into scraps, another’s formula for happiness and recommend your own but that is an egotism that only the fool will flaunt and I began to suspect that the Slims and the Shortys had found a freedom for which millions in the tired world Outside vainly struggled and slowly died.

“I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.”
—Robert W. Service.

Rounding a sharp turn in the road that led over and around a hill jutting out from a mountain of black malpai, I saw a sign: “Shoshone” and just beyond, a little settlement almost hidden in a thicket of mesquite. A sign on a weather-beaten ramshackle building read, “Store.” A few listing shacks on a naked flat. An abandoned tent house, its torn canvas top whipping the rafters in the wind. Whirlwinds spiraling along dry washes to vanish in hummocks of sand.

The presence of three or four prospectors strung along a slab bench either staring at the ground at their feet or the brown bare mountains, only emphasized the depressing solitude and I decided if I had to choose between hell and Shoshone I’d take hell.

Reaching the store through deep dust, I guessed correctly that the big fellow giving me an appraising look was Charlie. He was slow in his movements, slow in his speech and I had the feeling that his keen, calm eyes had already counted the number of buttons on my shirt and the eyelets in my shoes. I asked about the road to Baker.

“Washed out. Won’t be open for two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” I gasped. “Long enough to kill a fellow, isn’t it?”

“Well, there’s a little cemetery handy. Just up the gulch.”

Impulsively I thrust out my hand. “Shake. You win. Now that we understand each other, have you a cabin for rent for these two weeks?”

“Yes, but you’d better take it longer,” he chuckled. “In two weeks you’ll be a native and won’t want to get out.”

The showing of the cabin was delayed by a lanky individual who was pawing over a pile of shoes. “Charlie, soles on my shoes are worn through. These any good?”

“Not worth a dam’,” Charlie said. He picked up hammer and nails, handed them to the lanky one. “Some old tires outside. Cut off a piece and tack it on. I’ll have some good shoes next time you’re in.”

A miner in an ancient pickup stopped for gas. As Brown filled the tank he noticed a tire dangerously worn. “Blackie, you need a new casing to get across Death Valley.”

“These’ll do,” Blackie answered as he dug into all his pockets, paid for the gas and got into the car.

“Wait a minute,” Brown said and in a moment he was rolling a new tire out, lifting it to the bed of the pickup. He handed Blackie a new tube. “If you use them, pay me. If you don’t, bring ’em back.”

Blackie regarded him a moment. “How’d you know I was broke?” he grinned, and chugged away.

A man stopped a truck in front of the door, came in and asked how far it was to Furnace Creek. Charlie looked him over, then glanced at the truck. “Fifty-eight miles the short way. Nearly 80 the other. You’ll have to take the long way.”

“Why?” the fellow bristled.

“Your load is too high for the underpass on the short route. Road’s washed out anyway.”

The man frowned and turned to go.

“Wait a minute,” Charlie called. He reached for a sack of flour, laid it on a counter. Then he stood a slab of bacon on its edge and cut off a chunk. “You’ll stop at Bradbury Well—”

“I won’t stop nowhere,” the truckman said.

“You’ll have to. Your radiator will be boiling.” He got a carton, put the flour and bacon in it and reaching on a shelf behind, got coffee, sugar, and canned milk and put these in. “Old Dobe Charlie Nels is camped there. Poor old fellow hasn’t been in for two weeks....”

The man looked at Charlie, uncertain. “You want me to drop it off, huh?”

“Yes,” Charlie said and lugging the carton to the truck, he shoved it in.

With squinted eyes the driver watched. “Mister, I’ll surely fill up here on my way back,” and with a friendly wave, climbed into his cab 68and I began to understand why all over the desert I’d heard of Charlie.

The cabin assigned me was the usual box type, shaded by the overhanging branches of a screwbean mesquite.

“Cabin’s not much,” Charlie said, “but you’ll have a Beauty Rest mattress to sleep on. My wife says folks’ll put up with most anything if they have a good bed.” He looked the room over and I noticed that nothing escaped him. Wood and kindling. Oil in the lamp. Water in the pitcher—an ornate vessel with enormous roses edged with gilt. He opened a closet door, saw that the matching vessel was in place and went out. After arranging my belongings, with time to kill, I returned to the store, hoping to learn something about nearby trails.

A short woman who preceded me slammed a can of coffee on the counter, removed her long cigarette holder, blew a ring of smoke at the ceiling and asked Charlie where he got the coffee. He told her that it came in a shipment.

“Well bigod, you send it back.”

Charlie laughed and turned to me: “This is Myra Benson. You want to stay on the good side of Myra. She has charge of the dining room.”

My remark that good coffee was my early morning weakness led to an invitation to sample her brew. “Mine too,” she said. “The pot’s on the stove before daylight, if you’re up that early.”

I soon discovered that Myra’s language was just a bit of color Death Valley imparts to speech, for she was deeply religious if not in all its forms, in all of its essentials and the occasional use of a two-fisted phrase did not in the least detract from the eternal feminine of one of Death Valley’s most remarkable women.

Guided by the light in her kitchen, I joined her the next morning while Shoshone still slept, and over a delicious cup learned something about people and places.

The man with the wide Stetson was Dan Modine, deputy sheriff. Liked poker. The quiet, squat fellow with the blue pop eyes was Billy de Von. “College man. Works on the roads. Taught in the University of Mexico before he came here. Siberian Red? Oh, that’s Ernie Huhn. No place on Godamighty’s earth he hasn’t been. As soon bet $1000 as two bits on a pair of jacks.”

“The tall thin fellow they called Sam? Must be Sam Flake. Here before Noah built the ark.”

Knowing that Mormons had pioneered in the area, I was curious about an undersized man pushing an oversize baby carriage loaded with infants and a dozen youngsters trailing him. “Does he happen to be one of the Faithful who has clung to his wives?” I asked.

“That’s Eddie Main,” Myra laughed. “Bachelor. Just loves kids. He was born in San Francisco in the days when a nickel just wasn’t counted unless it had a dime alongside. His folks sent him to New York to be educated. Eddie didn’t like it. ‘It’s a nickel town,’ Eddie said. ‘Cheapest hole on earth.’ He came to the desert and the desert took him over. When he’s not hauling kids around he’s reading. Don’t get out on a limb in an argument with Eddie. You’ll lose sure. Every now and then Eddie goes East for a vacation. It’s awful on the mothers. They have to take care of their own children and the children want Eddie.”

“Who is Hank, the fellow that came in with the pickup Ford?” I asked.

“Our bootlegger. Comes Wednesdays and Saturdays. Regular as a bread route. Always tell when he’s due. Bench is crowded. Didn’t you notice the tarpaulin over his truck? Always two kegs and a sack of empty pints and quarts. Rough roads here. Siphons out what you want. Death Valley Scotty? Around yesterday. Lit up like a barn afire.” The short man with the black whiskers was Henry Ashford who, with his brothers Harold and Rudolph owned the Ashford mine.

“How does such a little store in a place like this make a living for the Browns?”

“I wonder myself, at times,” she said. “Everybody around here takes their troubles to Charlie or Stella. Maybe you noticed their home—the cottage with the screen porch a few steps from the store. Stella was telling me yesterday she needed a new carpet for her living room. I said, ‘I’m not surprised. You’re running a nursery, emergency hospital, and a domestic relations court.’ Sometimes young couples find their marriage going on the rocks. The woman goes to Stella to get the kinks out. As for Charlie, if you’re around long enough you’ll see him most every morning strolling over to the shacks in the jungle or up to the dugouts in Dublin Gulch. He thinks nobody knows what he’s doing or maybe they figure he’s just taking a walk. I know. Some of these old fellows are always in a bad way. Just last week Charlie came in here and told me to send something a sick man could eat over to old Jim. ‘I’ll have to take him to the hospital soon as I can get my car ready,’ he said. Three hundred miles—that trip.

“And there’s Phil. You’ll see him around. Fine steady chap. Lost his job when the mine he worked in shut down. Long as he was working he was the first in the dining room when I opened the door. He began to miss a breakfast, then a dinner, and finally he didn’t show up at all. I supposed he was cooking his own and didn’t mention it. Kept his chin up. You could hear him laughing loud as anybody on the bench, but 70Charlie noticed that once a day Phil would follow his nose over into the mesquite where somebody was sure to share a mulligan stew.

“One day when Phil was sitting alone on the woodpile just outside my kitchen, Charlie sat down beside him. They didn’t know I was there. ‘Phil,’ Charlie says, ‘the ditch that carries the runoff up at the spring needs widening. Could you spare a few days to put it in shape?’

“Phil left that bench running, got a pick and shovel and went singing up the road and to this day he doesn’t know that Charlie just created that job so he could eat.”

I mentioned the fellow with black hair and blue eyes. “He complained of rheumatism and slapped his knees a lot.”

“Oh, that’s Dutch Barr. It isn’t rheumatism. Just a sign he’s going on a drunk.”

The lanky man with the blond eyebrows and sombre face which lighted so easily to laugh, was Whitey Bill McGarn. “... Never had a worry in his life....”

I learned also that the mountain of malpai which lifts above Shoshone was a burial place for a race of Indians antedating the Piutes and Shoshones. “They buried their dead in a crouching position on their knees, elbows bent, hands at their ears. Old Nancy, who was Sam Yundt’s squaw wife before he got rich, says they were buried that way so they would be ready to go quick when the Great Spirit called.”

The first rose of dawn was in the sky when I left Myra. “You’ll have time enough to look around before breakfast,” she told me and recommended a view of the valley from the flat-topped mesa above my cabin. “You can reach the top by climbing up a gully and holding on to the greasewood. You can see the dugouts in Dublin Gulch too. Some real old timers live there.”

A sweeping view of the little valley rewarded the climb.

Below, Shoshone lay, tucked away in the mesquite. No honking horns, no clanging cars. No swollen ankles dragging muted chains to bench or counter, desk or machine. Soon faint spirals of smoke leaned from the shanties. Shoshone was awakening. It would wash its face on a slab bench, eat its bacon and eggs, and somebody would go out to look for two million dollars. After breakfast, I joined the old timers on the bench. “No—nothing exciting happens around here,” Joe Ryan told me and stopped whittling to look at a car coming up the road. A moment later the car stopped at the gas pump and three smartly tailored men stepped out. I heard one say, “Odd looking lot on that bench, aren’t they?” Then Joe said to the fellow at his side, “Queer looking birds, ain’t they?”

“How much is gas?” one of the tourists asked.

“Thirty cents,” Charlie said.

“Why, it’s only 18 in the city,” the man flared. “How far is it to the next gas?”

Charlie told him, and Big Dan sitting beside me muttered: “Dam’ fool’ll pay 50 cents up there.”

The driver climbed into the car and Charlie asked if he had plenty of water.

“A gallon can full....”

“Not enough,” Charlie warned.

A fellow in the back seat spoke, “Aw, go on. He wants to sell a canteen....”

As the car pulled out, Joe called to Charlie: “You’re sold out of canteens, ain’t you?”

“Yes. But I was going to give him one of those old five gallon cans on the dump.” He went inside and Joe Ryan said, “Won’t get far on a gallon of water.” He waved his knife toward the little cemetery at the mouth of the gulch. “Lot of smart Alecs like him up there, that Charlie dragged in offa the desert.”

It was five days almost to the hour when Ann Cowboy, a Piute squaw came to the store with an Indian boy who couldn’t speak English; nodded at the boy and said to Charlie: “Him see....” She pointed to the big black mountain of malpai above Shoshone, whirled her finger in a circle, shot it this way and that, then patted the floor. “You savvy?”

Her dark eyes watched Charlie’s and when she had finished Charlie called Joe Ryan and together they went across the road, climbed into a pickup truck and left in a hurry. Even I understood that somebody on the other side of that mountain was in trouble, but I had no idea that in three or four hours the pickup would return with a cadaver under a tarpaulin and a thirst-crazed survivor whose distorted features bore little resemblance to those of man.

Big Dan helped lift the victim from the truck. “There were three,” Dan said. “Where is the other fellow?”

“We looked all over,” Joe shrugged.

“The one that’s missing,” Dan said, “is the fellow that griped about the canteen. I remember his black hair.”

They carried the still-living man over to Charlie’s house and left him to the ministrations of the capable Stella. Charlie returned to the store, got a pick and shovel from a rack, handed one to Ben Brandt and one to Cranky Casey. Not a word was spoken to them. They took the tools and started toward the little cemetery at the mouth of Dublin Gulch.

I joined Dan on the bench. “Well,” Dan said, “they saved the price of a canteen.”

Two spinsters—teachers of zoology in a fashionable eastern school for girls—came in search of a place they called Metbury Springs. Brown told them there were no such springs in the Death Valley region. Obviously disappointed, one produced a map, spread it on the counter, ran her finger over a maze of notes and looking up asked what sort of rats lived about Shoshone. Charlie told them that very few rats survived their natural enemies and were seldom seen.

“What do they look like?” the teacher asked.

“Just regular rats,” Charlie told her.

Again she consulted her notes. “Do you mean to say the only rat you’ve seen here is Mus decumanus?”

“Mus who?” Charlie asked. “Only rats around here besides the two-legged kind are just plain everyday rats.”

The ladies gathered up their papers, went outside, looked over the hills, consulted their maps, and returned to Brown. “Sir, this is Metbury Spring,” one announced, “and for your own information we may add that in no other place in the world is there a rat like the one you have here.”

The amazing feature of this incident is that it is true. The rats in some unexplained way had disappeared.

The spinsters remained for weeks but failed to find the specimen they sought, but Charlie learned that the first man known to have settled at Shoshone was a man named Brown and Shoshone’s first name was Metbury Spring.

Death came to Shoshone that week-end. George Hoagland, prospector, reached Trail’s End. Charlie announced the news to the bench and asked for volunteers to dig the grave. Bob Johnson, another prospector, jumped up. “I’ll help.”

The others gave Bob a quick look and exchanged slow ones with each other, because it was known that Bob had not liked Hoagland. “I’ve been in lots of deals with that bastard,” he had often said. “Came out loser every time. Always left himself a hole to wiggle out of.”

Right or wrong, Bob’s opinion was shared by many. Herman Jones glanced after Bob, now going for a pick and shovel. “That’s sure white of Bob, forgetting his grudge,” Herman said and all Shoshone approved.

I joined the little group that filed up to the cemetery at the mouth of the gulch for the graveside ceremony. We stood about waiting for the box that contained all there was of George.

They take death on the desert just as they do any other grim fact of nature. They talked of George and the hard, chalky earth Bob had to dig through in the hot sun. There were mild arguments about whose bones lay under this or that unmarked grave. “Dad Fairbanks brought that fellow in....” “No such thing. That’s Tillie Younger—member of Jesse James’s gang. I helped bury him....”

Presently there was a stir and I saw Charlie over where the women were. He had another chore and was doing it because there was no one else to do it.

“Usually reads a coupla verses,” Joe Ryan told me. “But somebody stole the only Bible in Shoshone.”

The box was lowered, the grave filled and Charlie stepped forward. He held his hat well up in front of his chest and I suspected that he had a few notes pasted in the hat. Those about were listening intently as people will to one who has something to say and says it in a few words.

Suddenly I was conscious of mumbling and the tramping of earth and seeing Brown flick a glance out of the corner of his eye toward the disturbing sound, I turned to see Bob Johnson jumping up and down on the earth that filled the grave—careful to miss no inch of it. When he had tamped it sufficiently he stepped aside and muttered angrily: “Now dam’ you—let’s see you wiggle out of this hole!”

Yet, when the hills are covered with wild flowers one may see on the unsodded graves of the little cemetery a bottle or a tin can filled with sun cups or baby blue eyes and in the dust the tracks of a hobnailed shoe.

I soon discovered the bench was more than a slab of wood. It was a state of Hallelujah. For the most part those who gathered there were a silent lot, but as one unshaven ancient told me, “Too damned much talk in the world. Two-three words are plenty—like yes, naw, and dam’.” Some of them had beaten trails from Crede or Cripple Creek, Virginia City or Bodie. “It’s a clean life and clean money,” was an expression that ran like a formula through their conversation.

“Of course, few keep the money they get,” Joe Ryan said. “Jack Morissey couldn’t read or write. He struck it rich. Bought a diamond-studded watch and couldn’t even tell the time of day. Went to Europe; hit all the high spots; came back and died in the poor house. But he had his fun, which makes more sense than what Nat Crede did. He hit it rich. Built a town and a palace. Then blew his brains out and left all his millions to a Los Angeles foundling.”

One oldster remembered Eilly Orrum of Virginia City. “She had followed the covered wagons and made a living washing our clothes, 74but she got into our hearts. Everybody liked her. Some say she forgot to get a divorce from her second husband before she married Sandy Bowers. Nobody blamed her. She and Sandy ran a beanery. Eilly would feed anybody on the cuff. John Rodgers ran up a board bill and couldn’t pay it. He had a few shares in a no-count claim and talked Eilly into taking the shares to settle the bill.

“Within two weeks Eilly was getting $20,000 a month from that deal. It wasn’t long before she was giggling happily and telling everybody she didn’t see how folks could live on less than $100,000 a year.”

“Julia Bulette? Ran a snooty fancy house. But she taught Virginia City how to eat and what, and soon the rich fellows wouldn’t stand for anything except the world’s best foods.”

“Oh yes, everybody knew Old Virginny. Gave the town its name. Always drunk. Discovered the Ophir. Swapped it for a mustang pony and a pint of likker to old Pancake Comstock. When he sobered up he discovered the pony was blind. Pancake swapped an eighth interest in the Ophir to a Mexican, Gabriel Maldonado, for two burros. The Mexican took out $6,000,000. Pancake was quite a lady-killer. Ran away with a miner’s wife. Fellow was glad to get rid of her, but decided he’d beat hell out of Pancake. Found him in new diggings nearby and jumped him. ‘You don’t want her,’ Pancake says. ‘Be reasonable. I’ll buy her.’

“They haggled awhile and the fellow agreed to accept $50 and a plug horse. He took the money and started for the horse.

“‘Wait a minute,’ Pancake says, ‘I want a bill of sale,’ and wrote it out on the spot, and made the fellow sign it. Didn’t keep her long though. She ran away with a tramp fiddler. The Comstock Lode produced over a billion dollars. He might have had a fifth of that. Just too smart for his own good. Finally paid the price. Found him on the trail one day. Brains blowed out. Suicide.”

Dobe Charlie Nels was at Bodie, rendezvous of the toughest of the bad men when the United States Hotel rented its rooms in six-hour shifts and guests were awakened at the end of that period to make places for others. He recalled Eleanor Dumont, whose deft fingers dealt four kings to the unwary and four aces to herself. Smitten lovers had shot it out for her favors on the Mother Lode and on the Comstock, but when life and love still were fair, fate played a scurvy trick on the beauteous Eleanor. The shadow of a little down began to show on her lip and darkened with the years and so she became Madame Moustache. “She just got tired living and one night she went outside, swallowed a little pellet and passed the deal to God.”

But the charmers of Bodie and its bad men and the millions its hills 75produced were not so deeply etched on his memory as the job he lost because he did it well. Hungry and broke when he arrived he took the first job offered—stacking cord wood.

“It was a job I really knew. The boss drove stakes 4×8 feet alongside a mountain of cut wood. I figured I had a long job. He left and I took pains to make every cord level on top, sides even. When the boss came back he blew up, kicked over my piles and wanted to know if I was trying to ruin him. ‘If you’d picked out a few crooked sticks and crossed a few straight ones, you could have made a cord with half the wood. Get out and don’t come back.’” Charlie also had a story of a memorable night.

A bartender in one of Bodie’s better saloons was putting his stock in order after a busy night when three celebrants in swallow tails and toppers came unsteadily through the doors. The two on the outside were gallantly steadying the one in the center as they led him to the bar. The bartender smiled understandingly when, coming for their orders, he noticed the center man’s head was pillowed on his arms over the bar, his topper lying on its side in front of his face. Recalling that the fellow had consumed often and eagerly but had paid for none in an earlier session, he nodded at the silent one: “Shall I count him out?”

“Oh no. Bill’s buying this time.”

The drinks served, the bartender left to attend another late patron and moments passed before he returned to find Bill just as he had left him, but alone—his drink untouched. He tapped Bill’s shoulder and asked payment for the drinks. When three taps and three demands brought no answer, he picked up a bung starter; went around the counter, seized Bill by the shoulder, wheeled him around only to discover that Bill was dead. Startled and panicky, the bartender now ran to the door, saw Bill’s friends weaving up the street and ran after them, told them excitedly that Bill had croaked.

“Oh,” one said thickly. “Bill’s ticker jammed in our room an hour ago. His last words were, ‘Fellows, I want you to have a drink on me.’ Couldn’t refuse old Bill’s last request.”

When Dobe Charlie had finished this story he turned to a clear-eyed ancient standing nearby. “Jim, I reckon you’d call me a Johnny-come-lately since you were a Forty-Niner.”

“No,” Jim said. “I was 12 when I came to Hangtown. I remember a fellow they called Wheelbarrow John, because he made a better wheelbarrow than anyone else. He saved $3000 and went back East. He was John Studebaker. Made wagons first. Then autos.

“Young fellow named Phil Armour came. No luck. Pulled out. He did all right in Chicago though. Founded Armour Company.

“Did I ever tell you about the Digger Ounce? No? Well, it’s history. The Digger Indians didn’t know what gold was. Actually they’d been throwing nuggets at rabbits and couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw miners exchange the same stuff for food and clothing at the store. The Indians had been getting it along the stream beds for ages. So they came in with their buckskin loin bags full of it. The merchant took it all right, but when he balanced his scales, he used a weight that gave the Digger only one dollar for every five he was entitled to. Then the Indian had to pay three prices for everything he bought. One miner loafing around the store, followed the Diggers one day, learned where they were getting it and cleaned up $40,000 in no time. That’s history too.

“Crooked merchants used the same trick on drunken whites and anybody else who didn’t keep their eyes open. So the Digger Ounce became a byword all along the Mother Lode.”

But of all the stories about the Comstock this fine old gentleman told us, I like best one about Joe Plato. Young, strong, and handsome as Apollo, Joe craved a fling after months of toil in the gulches with no sight of woman other than the flat-faced Washoe squaws.

In San Francisco Joe saw a big red apple and he wanted it. A breath-taking girl sold him the apple and he wanted her. He acquired the girl also. His gambols over, Joe handed her five shares of ten he owned in a Comstock claim. ‘A little token,’ he grinned, never dreaming the beautiful wanton had a heart and loved him madly. So he forgot her. She didn’t forget Joe.

Months later the ten shares were worth on the market $1,000,000. Joe remembered then. ‘Too much for a girl like that.’

To beat the news and retrieve the stock, he braved Sierra storms, found her. In the battle of wits she played her cards superbly. “Of course,” she said at last, “... if we were married....”

So the beaten Joe faced the preacher.

When Joe Plato died she took her millions to San Francisco, married a rich merchant, became a social leader and the mother of nabobs.

One morning at breakfast Myra informed me that I could get to Bradbury Well, a famous landmark on the road to Death Valley. To break the routine, I went. The route leads over Salsbury Pass, named for Jack Salsbury—a congenital promoter who was forever hunting something to promote. He had made and lost fortunes in cattle, lumber, and mines and for a while lived at Shoshone.

In a ravine near Bradbury Well were two or three dugouts. In one was the ubiquitous Rocky Mountain George—lean, seamed, and soft 77voiced. On the box he used for a table lay a letter mailed in Denver and bearing this address: “Rocky Mountain George, Nevada.” Known all over the gold belt, a dozen postmasters had sent it from town to town and now it had caught up with George.

Meeting George a few weeks later in Beatty I recalled our meeting. He hadn’t shaved in a week and his torn overalls were covered with grime. A well-tailored gentleman came out of the hotel across the street and stepped into a smart car. “Hey, Jim—” George called. “Come over here a minute....” The man left his car and walked over. “Jim, I want you to meet my friend....” Jim and I shook hands. “Jim’s our governor,” George added and I looked again at Nevada’s Governor James Scrugham, later its U. S. Senator. For an hour he and George talked of canyons in which, they decided, somebody would find a billion dollars and I decided Democracy was safe on the desert.

Walking up the wash from George’s dugout I was surprised to see a slim blonde with blue eyes and a nice smile. Obviously she had just left her stove, for she had a steaming pot of coffee in her hand. I made some inane remark about the beauty of the morning.

“It’s nearly always like this,” she said and after a moment I was sitting on the bench outside the dugout sipping coffee. I learned that her name was Helen. “Why shouldn’t I try prospecting? I’ve nothing to lose. I had a job clerking, but I just couldn’t scrimp enough to pay for medicine and the doctors’ bills.”

That and the telltale spot on her cheek seemed reason enough for her presence and, as she explained, “I might make a strike.”

Later in Beatty, I noticed a small crowd about the office of Judge W. B. Gray, Beatty’s marrying Justice, who was also interested in mines. “What’s the riot?” I asked Rocky Mountain George, who was whittling on the bench beside me. “Helen made a big strike,” he told me and I hurried over and met her coming out—radiant and excited.

“I’ve just heard of your strike,” I said. “Where did you make it?”

“Right in that wash,” she laughed. “He came along one day and—well, we just got to liking each other and—” She paused to introduce me to a good looking clean-cut fellow and added: “So we just up and married.”

The population of Beatty had so changed in one generation that in 1949 when the town wanted to put on a celebration, not a citizen could be found who knew Beatty’s first name. Finally a former acquaintance was located at Long Beach who advised a booster group that the name of its founder was William Martin Beatty. The gentleman is mistaken. Beatty’s first name was Montelius and was called Monte by all old timers.

A feature of social life in Shoshone was the Snake House—an unbelievable structure made of shook from apple crates, scraps of corrugated iron found in the dump, tin cut from oil cans, and cardboard from packing cartons, which because of scant rainfall, served almost as well as wood or iron.

A fellow comes in from the hills, craves relaxation and finds it in the Snake House. Though he never plays poker, Eddie Main who lived a few yards away was induced to function as a sort of Managing Director, to see that the game remained a gentleman’s game.

Inside, swinging from the roof is a Coleman lantern and under it a big round table covered with a blanket stretched tight and tacked under the edges. A rack of chips. Chairs for players and kegs and beer crates for spectators. A stove in the corner furnishes heat when needed. If you limit your poker to penny ante, the game is not for you. I have seen more than $1000 in the pots and large bets are the rule.

One night Sam Flake who has been in Death Valley country longer than any living man, joined the game. Sam, a student of poker, ran afoul of four queens and went home broke. The next day as he worked in a mine tunnel, Sam was holding a post mortem over his disaster. He went over his play point by point. Like many a desert man used to solitude, Sam occasionally talked to himself aloud, And unaware that Whitey Bill McGarn was in a stope just above him, Sam diagnosed his loss: “I opened right. I anted right. I bet right. I called right. Can’t be but one answer. I was sitting in the wrong seat.” (Sam Flake died suddenly at Tecopa Hot Springs in 1949.)

The village of Tecopa is 11 miles south of Shoshone. When the railroad was built stations were given names of local significance and this honors the Indian chief, Cap Tecopa.

Important discoveries of gold, silver, lead, and talc were made and are still being worked. In the early days murders of both whites and Indians, without any clues were of frequent occurrence. Someone recalled that every killing of an Indian by a white man had been followed by a white man’s murder.

The Piute believed in blood atonement and when a young American was found butchered in the Ibex hills, friends of the deceased went to Cap Tecopa with evidence which indicated the murder was committed by Cap’s tribesmen. “We want these killings stopped,” they told him heatedly.

Cap denied any knowledge of the crime and brushed aside the suggestion that he produce the assassin. “Too many Indians,” Cap said. “But if you help, I can stop the killings.”

“How?” they demanded.

“You tell hiko no kill Indian. I tell Indian no kill hiko.”

Cap Tecopa was a good prospector and owned a coveted claim which he refused to sell.

Among the fortune seekers was a flashily dressed individual who wore a tall silk topper. The beegum fascinated Cap and he wanted it. He followed the wearer about, his eyes never leaving the shiny headgear. At last the urge to possess was irresistible and he approached the owner. A lean finger gingerly touched the sacred brim. “How much?”

All he got was a shake of the head. Failure only stimulated Tecopa’s desire. His money refused, Cap in his desperation thought of the claim which the cunning of the promoters, the wiles of gamblers, the pleas of friends had failed to get.

The owner of the hat annoyed by Tecopa, decided to get rid of him. “You take hat. I take claim.”

The Indian reached for the topper. “Take um,” he grunted and the deal was made. Several other versions of this story are recalled by old timers.

The Tecopa Hot Springs were highly esteemed by the desert Indian, who always advertised the waters he believed to have medicinal value. In the Coso Range he used the walls of a canyon approaching the springs for his message. The crude drawing of a man was pictured, shoulders bent, leaning heavily on a stick. Another showed the same man leaving the springs but now walking erect, his stick abandoned.

The Tecopa Springs are about one and a half miles north of Tecopa and furnish an astounding example of rumor’s far-reaching power. Originally there was only one spring and when I first saw it, it was a round pool about eight feet in diameter, three feet deep and so hidden by tules that one might pass within a few feet of it unaware of its existence. The singularly clear water seeped from a barren hill. About, is a blinding white crust of boron and alkali. There Ann Cowboy used to lead Mary Shoofly, to stay the blindness that threatened Mary Shoofly’s failing eyes. When the whites discovered the spring, the Indians abandoned it.

Later it became a community bath tub and laundry. Prospectors would “hoof” it for miles to do their washing because the water was hot—112 degrees, and the borax content assured easy cleansing. Husbands and wives began to go for baths and someone hauled in a few pieces of corrugated iron and made blinds behind which they bathed in the nude. A garment was hung on the blind as a sign of occupation and it is a tribute to the chivalry of desert men that they always stopped a few hundred feet away to look for that garment, and advanced only when it was removed.

Today you will see two new structures at the spring and long lines of bathers living in trailers parked nearby. They are victims of arthritis, rheumatism, swollen feet, or something that had baffled physicians, patent medicines, and quacks. They come from every part of the country. Somebody has told them that somebody else had been cured at a little spring on the desert between Shoshone and Tecopa.

Some live under blankets, cook in a tin can over bits of wood hoarded like gold, for the vicinity is bare of growth. It is government land and space is free. Some camp on the bare ground without tent, the soft silt their only bed. “Something ails my blood. Shoulder gets to aching. Neck stiff. Come here and boil out” ... “Like magic—this water. I’ve been to every medicinal bath in Europe and America. This beats ’em all.”

You finally turn away, dazed with stories of elephantine legs, restored to perfect size and symmetry. Of muscles dead for a decade, moving with the precision of a motor. Of joints rigid as a steel rail suddenly pliable as the ankles of a tap dancer.

Here they sit in the sun—patient, hopeful; their crutches leaning against their trailer steps. They have the blessed privilege of discussing their ailments with each other. “Oh, your misery was nothing. Doctors said I would never reach here alive....”

An analysis shows traces of radium.

A few miles below Tecopa is another landmark of the country known as the China Ranch. To old timers it was known as The Chinaman’s Ranch. One Quon Sing, who had been a cook at Old Harmony Borax Works quit that job to serve a Mr. Osborn, wealthy mining man with interests near Tecopa. His service with Osborn covered a period of many years.

“I can’t state it as a fact,” Shorty Harris once told me, “but I have been told by old settlers that Osborn located him on the ranch as a reward for long and faithful service.”

The land was in the raw stage, with nothing to appeal to a white man except water. It was reached through a twisting canyon which filled at times with the raging torrents dropped by cloudbursts. Erosion has left spectacular scenery. In places mud walls lift straight up hundreds of feet. Nobody but a Chinaman or a bandit hiding from the law would have wanted it.

There was a spring which the Chinaman developed and soon a little stream flowed all year. The industrious Chinaman converted it into a profitable ranch. He planted figs and dates and knowing, as only a Chinaman does, the value and uses of water the place was soon transformed into a garden with shade trees spreading over a green meadow—a 81cooling, restful little haven hidden away in the heart of the hills. He had cows and raised chickens and hogs. He planted grapes, dates, and vegetables and soon was selling his produce to the settlers scattered about the desert. From a wayfaring guest he would accept no money for food or lodging.

After the Chinaman had brought the ranch to a high state of production a white man came along and since there was no law in the country, he made one of his own—his model the ancient one that “He shall take who has the might and he shall keep who can.” He chased the Chinaman off with a shot gun and sat down to enjoy himself, secure in the knowledge that nobody cared enough for a Chinaman to do anything about it.

The Chinaman was never again heard of.

The ranch since has had many owners. Though the roads are rough and the grades difficult, on the broad verandas that encircle the old ranch house, one feels he has found a bit of paradise “away from it all.”

Sitting on the porch once with Big Bill Greer, who owned a life interest in it until his demise recently, we talked of the various yarns told of the Chinaman.

“The best thing he did was that planting over there by the stream.” He lifted his huge form from the chair. “Just wait a minute. I’ll get you a specimen.”

While he was gone I strolled around to see other miracles wrought by the heathen chased from his home by a Christian’s gun. When I returned Bill was waiting with two tall glasses, diffusing a tantalizing aroma of bourbon. Floating on the liquor were bunches of crisp, cooling mint. He gave me one, lifted the other. “Here’s to Quon Sing. God rest his soul,” Bill said.

As we slowly sipped I asked him if he had brought the specimen.

“It’s the mint,” Bill said.

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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These items are historical in scope and are intended for educational purposes only; they are not meant as an aid for travel planning.
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