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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XVIII

A Million Dollar Poker Game

Herman Jones, young Texan with keen blue eyes and a guileless grin, dropped off the train at Johnnie, a railroad siding, named for the nearby Johnnie mine. At the ripe age of 21 he had been through a shooting war between New Mexico cattle men, and needing money to marry the prettiest girl in the territory, he had come for gold.

Finding it lonesome on his first night he sought the diversion of a poker game in a saloon and gambling house. He bought a stack of chips, sat down facing the bar and a moment later another stranger entered, inquired if he could join the game.

Told that $20 would get a seat, the stranger standing with his back to the bar was reaching for his purse when Herman saw the bartender pick up a six-gun. With his elbows on the bar and his pistol in two hands, he aimed the gun at the back of the stranger’s head and pulled the trigger.

The victim dropped instantly to the floor, his brains scattered on the players. The poker session adjourned and Jones was standing outside a few moments later when he was tapped on the shoulder. “Come on,” he was told. “We’re giving that fellow a floater.” Herman didn’t know what a floater was, but decided it was best to obey orders and followed the leader into the saloon.

Approaching the bartender, the spokesman pulled out his watch. “Bob,” he said quietly. “It’s six o’clock. It won’t be healthy around here after 6:30.” He set a canteen on the bar and walked out.

Without a word, the bartender pulled off his coat, gathered up the cash, called the painted lady attached to his fortune and said, “Sell out for what you can get. I’ll let you know where I am.” Picking up his hat he left. No one ever learned the cause of the murder or the identity of the dead.

With no luck in the Johnnie district or at Greenwater, Herman left 126the latter place on a prospecting trip in partnership with another luckless youngster previously mentioned—Harry Oakes.

On a hill overlooking the dry bed of the Amargosa River about four miles north of Shoshone, he saw a red outcropping on a hill so steep he decided nothing that walked had ever reached the summit, and for that reason he might find treasure overlooked.

Herman, being lean and agile, climbed up to investigate. Oakes remained under a bush below. Jones returned with a piece of ore showing color. A popular song of the period was called “Red Wing” and because he liked sentimental ballads, Herman named it for the song. Camp was made at the bottom of the hill. Oakes assumed the dish washing job to offset an extra hour which Herman agreed to give to work on the trail. Somebody told Oakes how to bake bread and while Herman was wheeling muck to the dump, Harry experimented with his cookery. The bread turned out to be excellent and Oakes took the day off to show it to friends.

“That’s the sort of fellow Harry was,” Herman says. “You just couldn’t take him seriously.”

The Red Wing didn’t pay and when abandoned, all they had to show for their labor was a stack of bills. On borrowed money, Oakes left the country. Herman remained to pay the bills.

A few miles east of Shoshone is Chicago Valley, which began in a startling swindle, and ended in fame and fortune for one defrauded victim.

A convincing crook from the Windy City found government land open to entry and called it Chicago Valley. It was a desolate area and the only living thing to be seen was an occasional coyote skulking across or a vulture flying over. The promoter needed no capital other than a good front, glib tongue, and the ability to lie without the flicker of a lash.

A few weeks later Chicago widows with meager endowments, scrub women with savings, and some who coughed too much from long hours in sweat shops began to receive beautifully illustrated pamphlets that described a tropical Eden with lush fields, cooling lakes, and more to the point, riches almost overnight. For $100 anyone concerned would be located.

Soon people began to swing off The Goose, as the dinky train serving Shoshone was called, and head for Chicago Valley. Among the victims was a widow named Holmes with a family of attractive, intelligent children. One of these was a vivacious, beautiful teen-ager named Helen.

The Holmes were handicapped because of tuberculosis in the family. This in fact had induced the widow to invest her savings.

Herman Jones used to ride by the Holmes’ place en route to the Pahrump Ranch on hunting trips and owning several burros, he thought the Holmes’ children would like to have one. Taking the donkey over, he told Helen, “You can use him to work the ranch too. Better and faster than a hoe....” He brought a harness and a cultivator, showed her how to use the implement.

It was inevitable that investors in Chicago Valley would lose their time, labor, and money.

Thus when Helen Holmes returned the burro to Herman one day, Herman was not surprised when she told him she was on her way to Los Angeles to look for a job.

“But what can you do?”

“I wish I knew. I can get a job washing dishes or waiting on table.”

Shortly afterward he heard from her—just a little note saying she was a hello girl on a switchboard. “Knew she’d land on her feet,” Herman grinned, and having a bottle handy he gurgled a toast to Helen. He had to tell the news of course and with each telling he produced the bottle.

So he was in a pleasant mood when somebody suggested a spot of poker. To mention poker in Shoshone is to have a game and in a little while Dad Fairbanks, Dan Modine, deputy sheriff, Herman, and two or three others were shuffling chips over in the Mesquite Club.

Herman had the luck and quit with $700. “Fellows,” he said as he folded his money, “take a last look at this roll. You won’t see it again.”

“Oh, you’ll be back,” Fairbanks said.

But Herman didn’t come back. Instead he went to Los Angeles, found Helen at the switchboard. She confided excitedly that she had a chance to get into the movies as soon as she could get some nice clothes.

“Fine,” Herman said. “When can I see you?” He made a date for dinner, had a few more drinks and when he met her he had a comfortable binge and a grand idea. “... Listen Helen. You wouldn’t get mad at a fool like me if I meant well, would you?”

“Why Herman—you know I wouldn’t,” she laughed.

“I’m a little likkered and it’s kinda personal....”

“But you’re a gentleman, Herman—drunk or sober....”

“I’ve been thinking of this picture business. I nicked Dad Fairbanks in a poker game. You know how I am. Lose it all one way or another. You take it and buy what you need and it’ll do us both some good.”

The refusal was quick. “It’s sweet of you Herman, but not that. I just couldn’t.”

“You can borrow it, can’t you ... so I won’t drink it up?”

The argument won and soon theater goers all over the world were clutching their palms as they watched the hair-raising escapes from death that pictured “The Perils of Pauline”—the serial that made Helen Holmes one of the immortals of the silent films. She died at 58, on July 8, 1950.

When Charlie Brown became Supervisor in charge of Death Valley roads, he wanted a foreman who knew the country. Herman Jones had hunted game, treasure, fossils, artifacts of ancient Indians all over Death Valley and knew the water courses, the location of subterranean ooze, the dry washes which when filled by cloudbursts were a menace. Brown made him foreman of the road crew.

At Shoshone, Herman Jones, grey now, was tinkering with a battered Ford when a big Rolls-Royce stopped. He looked around at the slam of the door, stared a moment at the man approaching, dropped his tools, wiped his hands on a greasy rag. “Well, I’ll be—” he laughed. “Harry Oakes—where’ve you been all these years?”

“Oh, knocking around,” grinned Oakes. “Wanted to see this country again.”

They sat in the shade of a mesquite, talked over Greenwater days and the homely memories that leap out of nowhere at such a time.

Oakes noticed Herman’s Ford. Then he pointed to the $20,000 worth of long, sleek Rolls-Royce. “Herman, I’m going back to New York in a plane. I want to make you a present of that car.”

Herman Jones, dumbfounded for a moment, looked at his Ford, smiled, and shook his head. “Thanks just the same, Harry. That old jalopy’s plenty good for me.” No amount of persuasion could make him accept it.

Knowing that Herman Jones could use any part of $20,000, I marvelled that he didn’t accept the proffered gift. Then I remembered that the Redwing had produced only sweat and debts and Jones had paid the debts through the bitter years.

In the little town of Swastika in the province of Ontario, Canada, you will be told that Oakes was booted off the train there because he was dead-beating his way. The country had been prospected, pronounced worthless and nobody believed there was pay dirt except a Chinaman.

Harry Oakes had an ear for anybody’s tale of gold and listened to the Chinaman. He was 38 years old. Lady Luck had always slammed 129the door in his face but this time, (January, 1912) she flung it open. Eleven years later Oakes was rich.

He had always talked on a grand scale even when broke at Shoshone. With a taste for luxury he began to gratify it. He bought a palatial home at Niagara Falls and served his guests on gold platters. As his fortune increased he gave largely to charities and welfare projects such as city parks, playgrounds, hospitals. These gifts lead one to believe that the belated payment of $300 borrowed from Dad Fairbanks was a calculated delay so that Harry Oakes could enjoy the little act he put on at Baker.

During World War I he gave $500,000 to a London hospital, was knighted by King George V in 1939. He became a friend of the Duke of Windsor and at his Nassau residence was often the host to the Duke and his Duchess, the amazing Wallis Warfield, Baltimore girl who went from a boarding house to wed a British king.

Sir Harry Oakes was murdered in the palatial Nassau home, July 7, 1943, allegedly by a titled son-in-law who was later acquitted—a verdict denounced by many.

In connection with the story of Helen Holmes told above, it should be explained that the original title was “Hazards of Helen” and following an old Hollywood custom, Pathe produced a new version called “Perils of Pauline.” In this the heroine’s part was taken by Pearl White.

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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