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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XVI

Long Man, Short Man

Before Tonopah, the first, and Greenwater, the last of the boom camps, Indians roaming the desert from Utah westward were showing trails to two hikos, who were to become symbols for the reckless courage needed to exist in the wasteland. They were known as Long Man and Short Man.

Previous pages have given part of the story of Long Man.

Coming into Death Valley country in the late Nineties, Ralph Jacobus Fairbanks wanted to know its water holes, trails, and landmarks. He hired Panamint Tom, brother of Hungry Bill, as a guide. Because Tom’s name was linked with Bill’s in stories of missing men, Fairbanks carried his six-gun.

Panamint Tom was also armed. When they reached the rim of Death Valley and started down, Fairbanks said, “Tom, this is Indian country. You know it. I don’t. You go first....”

Taking no chance on a surprise night attack, he directed the layout of the camp so that their beds were safely apart. Each slept with his gun. Around the camp fire, Tom nonchalantly confessed that he’d had to kill five white men.

The mission accomplished, they started back. When they came out of the valley Tom said, “Long Man, this is white man’s country. You know it. I don’t. You go first.” In after years, referring to their trip, Tom said, “Long Man, you heap ’fraid that time.” “I was,” Fairbanks confessed. “Me too,” Tom said.

When the Goldfield strike was made, Fairbanks saw that a supply station on the main line of travel was a surer way to wealth than the gamble of digging. He knew of a ranch with good water and luxuriant wild hay at Ash Meadows. Hay was worth $200 a ton. The owner had abandoned the ranch, however, and moved into the hills. Fairbanks could get little information concerning his whereabouts. “Up there somewhere,” he was told, with a gesture indicating 50 miles of sky line. But he wanted the hay and started out and by patient inquiry located 110his man just before daylight on the second day. “What will you give for it?” the man asked.

“Well,” Fairbanks parried, “you know it’ll cost me as much as the ranch is worth to get rid of that wild grass.” Having only a vague idea of its real worth he had decided to offer $4000, but sensed the man’s eagerness to sell and started to offer $1000. Suddenly it occurred to him that someone else might have made an offer. “I’ll go $2000 and not a nickel more.”

“You’ve bought a ranch,” the owner said.

Elated, Fairbanks wrote a contract by candlelight on the spot. Both signed and they started back to find a notary. “I determined the fellow should not get out of my sight until the deed was recorded. If he wanted a drink of water, so did I. If he wished to speak to someone, I wanted a word with the same man.”

Finally the deal was closed and Fairbanks started home. Outside, he met Ed Metcalf, chuckling.

“What’s so funny, Ed?”

Metcalf pointed to the departing seller. “He was just telling me about being worried to death all morning for fear a sucker he’d found would get out of his sight. He’s been trying to unload his ranch for $500 and some idiot gave him $2000.”

Fairbanks also operated a freighting service to the boom towns in the gold belt as far north as Goldfield and Tonopah. Rates were fantastic and he made a fortune. He opened Beatty’s first cafe in a tent.

Money was plentiful and after a trip with a 16 mule team over rough roads to Goldfield, he was ready for a relaxing change to poker. When the white chips are $25, the reds $50, and the blues $500 the game is not for pikers and he would bet $10,000 as calmly as he would 10 cents.

In such a game one night he found himself sitting beside a player who had removed his big overcoat with wide patch pockets and hung it on his chair. Fairbanks noticed the fellow had a habit of gathering in the discards when he wasn’t betting and his deal would follow. He also noticed intermittent movements of the fellow’s deft fingers to the big patch pocket and soon saw that every ace in the deck reposed in the pocket.

Later in the game, Fairbanks opened a jackpot. Every man stayed. The crook raised discreetly and most of the players stayed. Fairbanks bet $1000.

“Have to raise you $5000,” the crook said.

Fairbanks met the raise. “... and it’ll cost you $5000 more,” he said evenly.

With the confidence that came from the cached aces, the sharper shoved out the five, smiled exultantly as he spread four kings and a deuce and reached for the pot.

“Not so fast,” Fairbanks said as he laid four aces and a ten on the table.

The crook gave him a quick look. Fairbanks’ eyes were steady. Neither said a word. The crook couldn’t. He knew that Fairbanks’ long fingers had found the big patch pocket.

When three men and a jackass no longer made a crowd in Shoshone, Ralph Fairbanks became restless. With a population of 20—half of it his own progeny, he felt that civilization was closing in on him. “Charlie, I’ve been in one place too long....” He had now become “Dad Fairbanks” to all who knew him.

The automobile was being increasingly used in desert travel and transcontinental trips were no longer a daring adventure or the result of a bet. Sixty miles south of Shoshone there was a wretched road that pitched down the washboard slope of one range into a basin, then up the gully-crossed slopes of another. Part of the transcontinental highway, it was a headache to the traveler. Radiators usually boiled down hill and up.

To this desolate spot went Dad Fairbanks. The hot blasts from the dunes of the Devil’s Playground and the dry bed of Soda Lake made summer a hell and the freezing winds from Providence Mountains turned it into a Siberian winter.

Here in 1928 Dad Fairbanks built cabins and a store and installed a gas pump. Water was hauled in. “Coming or going,” he said, “when they reach this place they’ve just got to stop, cool the engine, and fill up for the hill ahead.” The place is Baker on Highway 91.

Here, as at Shoshone, sales technique was tossed into the ash can. Stopping for dinner one day I met Dad coming out of the dining room. “How’s the fare?” I asked.

“Are you hungry?”

“Hungry as a bear....”

“All right. Go in. A hungry man can stand anything.” Then in an undertone he added: “Employment agent sent me the world’s worst cook. Take eggs.”

Later as we talked in the sheltered driveway a Rolls-Royce limousine drove up and a well-fed and smartly tailored tourist stepped out and spoke to Dad: “Do you know me?” he asked.

Dad looked at him hesitantly. “Face is familiar.”

“You loaned me $300, 25 years ago.”

“I loaned a lotta fellows money.”

“But I never paid it back.”

“A helluva lot of ’em didn’t,” Dad said.

The stranger reached into his pocket, pulled $1000 from a roll and handed it to Dad. “I’m Harry Oakes,” he said. “Where’s Ma?”

So they went over to Dad’s house and with Ma Fairbanks who had shared all of Dad’s fortunes, good and bad, they sat down and Oakes talked of the long trail that led from 300 borrowed dollars to an annual income of five million.

Harry Oakes had gone to Canada and learning that the legal title to a mining claim would expire at midnight on a certain date, he and his partner W. G. Wright sat up in a temperature of forty below, to relocate the Lakeshore Mine—Canada’s richest gold property.

Born in Maine, Harry Oakes became a subject of England and was at this time Canada’s richest citizen, with an estimated fortune of $200,000,000.

It was a long way from the Niagara palace back to Greenwater and Shoshone and as Ma Fairbanks and Dad and Harry sat in the plain little desert cottage, I couldn’t keep from wondering why a man with $200,000,000 would wait 25 years to repay that $300.

In his native town of Sangerville in Maine, Harry Oakes was criticized when, as a youngster with every opportunity to pursue a successful career according to the staid Maine formula, he became excited by gold. “Quick easy money.” “Just a dreamer.” He talked big, acted big, and was big.

But Harry Oakes started out in life to make a fortune by finding a gold mine and you can’t laugh aside the determination and courage with which he stuck to his purpose until he succeeded.

Dad Fairbanks spent nearly 50 years in Death Valley country and it is a bit ironical that at last, the Baker climate drove him from the desert to Santa Paula and later, of all places, to Hollywood.

“I should never have believed it of you,” I kidded.

“Hell—” Dad retorted, “I wanted solitude. Haven’t you got enough sense to know that the lonesomest place on Godamighty’s earth is a city?”

He died in 1943 and at the funeral were the state’s greatest men and its humblest—bankers, lawyers, doctors, beggarmen, muckers and miners, and with them, those he loved best—sun-baked fellows from the towns and the gulches along the burro trails. No man who has lived in Death Valley country did more to put the region on the must list of the American tourist and none won more of the regard and affections of the people.

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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