Digital-Desert : Mojave Desert Visit us on Facebook -- Desert Gazette -- Desert Link
Intro:: Nature:: Map:: Points of Interest:: Roads & Trails:: People & History:: Ghosts & Gold:: Communities:: BLOG:: Weather:: :?:: glossary
Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XX

Odd But Interesting Characters

In these pages the reader has seen familiar names—the favored of Lady Luck—but what of those who failed—the patient, plodding kind of whom you hear only on the scene? They too followed jackasses into hidden hills; made trails that led others to fortunes which built cities, industries, railroad; endowed colleges and made science function for a better world. To these humbler actors we owe more than we can repay.

For nearly half a century John (Cranky) Casey roamed the deserts of California and Nevada looking for gold. His luck was consistently bad. Grim, tall, erect, with a deep slow voice, he was noted for picturesque speech which gained emphasis from an utterly humorless face. Congenitally he was an autocrat—his speech biting.

A prospector whom Casey didn’t like died and friends were discussing the disposition of the remains. “Chop his feet off,” suggested Casey, “and drive him into the ground with a doublejack....”

From others one could always hear tales of fortunes made or missed; of veins of gold wide as a barn door. But no trick of memory ever turned Casey’s bull quartz into picture rock. “Never found enough gold to fill a tooth,” he would say.

Casey’s leisure hours were spent over books and magazines, chiefly highbrow—particularly books and journals of science.

A tenderfoot was brought in unconscious from Pahrump Valley. A city doctor happened to be passing through and after an examination of the victim, turned to the men in overalls and hobnail shoes, who’d brought him in: “He’s suffering from a derangement of the hypothalamus.”

“Why in the hell don’t you say he had a heat stroke?” Casey barked.

A notorious promoter had a city victim ready for the dotted line. 137“Double your money in no time.... Samples show $200 to the ton....” Assuming all prospectors were crooked he called to Casey sitting nearby: “Casey, you know the Indian Tom claim?” “Yes, I know it,” Casey thundered. “Not a fleck of gold in the whole dam’ hill.”

In the thick silence that followed, the beaten rascal flushed, looked belligerently at Casey but Casey’s big, hard fists he knew, could almost dent boiler plate and the long arms wrapped about a barrel, could crush it flat.

In time Casey acquired an ancient flivver. Only his genius as a mechanic kept it going. There were lean years when it bore no license and he kept to little-traveled roads. The car, like Casey, was cranky and phlegmatic. One day as he was coming into Shoshone it balked in the middle of the road, coughed, shivered, and died. Inside the store it was 120 degrees. Out on the road where Casey stopped it was probably 130. For two hours he patiently but vainly tried to coax it back to life. Finally he stood aside, wiped the grease from his gnarled hands, calmly stoked his pipe and shoved the car from the road. Then he gathered an armful of boulders and with a blasting of cussing that shook Shoshone he let go with a cannonade of stones that completed its ruin.

At the age of ten Casey had been taken from the drift of a city’s backwash and put in an orphanage. Nothing was known of his parentage or of relatives. He came to the desert after a colorful career as a conductor on the Santa Fe. The late E. W. Harriman, having gained control of the Southern Pacific system had his private car attached to a Santa Fe train for an inspection tour. At a siding on the Mojave Desert, Harriman wanted the train held a few moments. His messenger went to Casey, explaining that Harriman was the new boss of the Southern Pacific.

“This is the Santa Fe,” Casey bristled, looking at his watch. “I’m due in Barstow at 11:05 and bigod I’ll be there.”

Aboard his train he was a despot and a stickler for the rules, demanding that even his superiors obey them. This finally was his downfall and he came to the desert.

Elinor Glyn, who made the best seller list with “Three Weeks” in the early part of the century, came to Rawhide and Tex Rickard, spectacular gambler undertook to show her a bit of life a la Rawhide. He took her to the Stingaree district and later to a reception in his own place. The state’s notables were presented to the lady along with Nat Goodwin, Julian Hawthorne, and others internationally known.

Tex saw Casey standing alone at the end of the bar and knowing he was a voracious reader he went to Casey: “Come on and meet the author of Three Weeks....”

“I’ve read it,” Casey said. “They’ve hung folks for less.”

Casey’s method of getting a job when his grub ran out was unique and unfailing. He would storm into the store and turn loose on Charlie, in charge of the roads and long his friend. “Who’s keeping up these roads? Chuck holes in ’em big as the Grand Canyon ... disgrace—”

“Been waiting for you to come in,” Charlie would say with a sober face. “Get a shovel and fix ’em.”

A good conscientious worker, Casey would put the road in shape, pay his debts and again head into the horizon.

You who spin through Death Valley or along its approaches owe much to Casey, who made many of the original road beds the hard way—with pick and shovel.

At last Casey got the old age pension and his latter years were the best. His home, a dugout in the bank of a wash near Tecopa. With no rent, with books and magazines and the solitude he loved, he lived happily. “When I croak,” he often said, “just put me in my dugout. Toss a stick of dynamite in after me. Shut the door and cave in the goddam’ hill.”

One night he went to Tecopa. Friends were doing a spot of drinking and far behind in his score with the years, Casey joined them. There was nothing out of line. Just yarns and memories and Casey had a lot of these. Tonopah. Goldfield. Rawhide. Ely. Foundling days.

“... They put me in a religious school. Had no relatives. In those days they whaled hell outa you just to see you squirm. ‘Casey,’ the teacher would ask, ‘who swallowed the whale?’ How did I know? Then he’d drag me off by the ear and blister my bottom. I shoved off one night. Been on the loose ever since.”

As he drank from his bottle of beer he suddenly slumped—and died instantly. Because of the intense heat, Maury Sorrells, now Supervisor but then Coroner, ordered immediate burial.

Someone recalled Casey’s wish to be put in the dugout and the hill blown up and started for the dynamite. But Whitey Bill McGarn warned that it would violate the law. One-eyed Casey—no relation, but long a friend, suggested a wake until the grave was dug. “It will be daylight then and we’ll plant him in the wash right in front of his dugout.”

This was done as the sun came over the hills and I like to think that somewhere in the after life, all is well with Casey.

Ben Brandt, previously mentioned, was a big blond man with child-like blue eyes, huge gnarled hands and the strength of an ox. He wore enormous boots, but when he bought new ones he always complained that they lacked traction and would go immediately to the dump, salvage an old tire casing and add two inches of reinforcement to the soles, 139with half a pound of hobnails. Ben then was ready for travel—provided he could find his burros.

Near remote Quail Springs Ben dug a 4×4 mine shaft 75 feet deep, without aid. Descending by ladder he would fill a 10 gallon bucket with dirt, climb out and bring it to the surface. Day after day, month after month Ben applied the power of two strong arms and two strong legs. “With an engine you could do it in half the time,” Ben was told. “I’ve got plenty of time,” Ben drawled.

Ben disdained gold in quartz formation. “I like placer. It’s a poor man’s game. If you find gold you put it in your poke and you’ve got spending money.”

Ben kept five burros and being industrious, never lacked a grubstake. He avoided argument except upon one subject, and that was burros versus Fords in prospecting. “I can get anywhere with my burros. I find stalled flivvers all over the desert and my burros drag ’em in.”

Ben believed that a burro had at least some of the intellectual powers of man. “Read a clock good as you,” he said. “I worked my burro, Solomon, on a hoist. He didn’t like it. I got up every morning at daylight, by an alarm clock. Slept out and kept the clock on a boulder at my head and got up when the alarm went off. One morning I woke up with the sun shining straight down in my eyes. It was noon. That burro had sneaked up and taken that clock down the canyon a mile away. Don’t tell me they can’t think! I sold him. Too smart.”

I asked Ben once what he would do if he suddenly found a million dollar claim. “I would build a monument a thousand feet high on top of Telescope Peak and dedicate it to burros.”

Such a monument would inadequately express the debt today’s world owes that little beast. Here are some of the things that link your life to the burro:

The springs and the mattress in the bed you were born on. The talc that powdered you. The soap that bathed you. The ring you slipped on the finger of the girl you love. The paint on your house. The glass in your windows. The tile in your bathroom. The enamel ware in your kitchen. The prescription your druggist fills. The fillings the dentist puts into your teeth. The coin and the currency you spend. The auto you ride in and finally the casket in which you leave this world.

Wars have been won or lost and the credit of nations stabilized because a burro carried a prospector’s grub into faraway hills.

Ben’s burros strayed and he’d just returned with them after a two days’ hunt. He was sitting on the bench mopping his brow when Louise Grantham, the girl with the mine in the Panamint, came up. She needed pack animals to get the ore down to the road. She’d tried 140before, to trade her Ford pickup for Ben’s burros, but he’d never shown a flicker of interest. In a voice pitched for Ben’s ears, she said to Ernie Huhn: “If Ben didn’t waste so much time hunting those jacks, he might find a mine.”

Ben cocked an ear, but made no comment.

“Now take that Quail Springs hole,” Louise went on. “If he had my pickup he could take off a wheel, put on a belt and haul up the muck in one tenth the time, and instead of hoofing it in the sun he could ride in a cool cab and haul his supplies in.”

There comes a weak moment in everyone’s life and this was Ben’s. He traded the burros for the Ford and one of the best prospectors on the desert was ruined forever.

Ben had a mortal fear of women and nothing could convince him that any unattached woman wasn’t always lying in wait for any loose man.

Ben went into the Johnnie country to prospect and passing through I looked him up. He was living in a tin shack in the canyon leading to the old Johnnie Mine. I asked Ben about his luck.

“Last prospecting I did was right out there.” He pointed to the slope in front of his house. “Good placer ground too.”

“Why did you quit?”

“Woman,” Ben grumbled. “Don’t know yet what come over me, but I took a woman for a partner.” He pointed to a boulder a few hundred yards away. “There’s where I wanted to start digging. It’s rich dirt. She wanted to start up there near her shack.”

“Well, what difference did it make?” I asked.

“I see you don’t know women. I hadn’t been working up there by her house no time before she called me to get her a bucket of water. Bucket was half full. Next day she wanted a board in the kitchen floor nailed down. Didn’t need any nail. ‘There’s some fresh apple pie on the table,’ she says. I told her I didn’t like pie. I’m crazy about pie but I knew her game. She calculated if I ate with her two—three times I’d be a dead pigeon. So I told her she could have the claim and walked off.”

Ben struck a happier note when he informed me that he didn’t need to work any more and at last had attained the one ambition of his life. “Come inside and I’ll show you.” Beaming as only a man can when he sits on top of the world, he approached a table and it flashed over me that I would see a certified check for a fortune.

There was a cloth over the table and he carefully wiped his big hands before touching it. He wet his big, broad thumb and forefinger and gave them an extra wipe on the sides of his shirt, a wide smile on his face and I had a vicarious thrill that a man who could barely read 141and write had at last achieved that which he most wanted in life. He started to remove the cloth, but paused. “Always said if I ever struck it rich, first money I spent would be for one of these dinkuses.”

He flipped the cloth aside. I stared incredulous. It was a portable typewriter.

He replaced the cover with the gentle care of a mother putting her baby to bed and I left him, sure that God was in his heaven with an eye on Ben.

Contemporary with Ben was Joe Volmer, who lived in a dugout in Dublin Gulch. I had seen royalty from afar and once I had dined with a sultan on horsemeat and fried bananas, but no king ever attained the majesty of Joe. He was tall, erect, wore a white sailor’s hat and carried a cane. His mustache was always waxed to a needle point, after the manner of Kaiser Wilhelm. Though he increased his small pension by selling home brew, he always managed to give the impression that he was descending to your level when he accepted the two bits you left on his table.

He was neat as he was lordly and forever scrubbing his pots and pans. He kept the dugout immaculate and when I first saw him standing on the ledge in front of his door, calmly surveying the valley below, he posed like an Alexander the Great, with the world conquered and trussed at his feet.

I had never seen him until one day a tourist came into the store and asked Charlie for a stop-watch. Charlie told him he didn’t carry stop-watches. Shortly after the tourist had gone, Joe came in for a stop-watch. “Don’t keep ’em,” Charlie said. “Helluva store,” Joe barked and strode out.

“A curious coincidence,” I said. “Two calls for a stop-watch in the same day away out here.”

“It’s no coincidence,” Charlie said. “Just Joe Volmer. He’s in every day asking for something he knows I haven’t got.”

After Joe left, Jack Crowley came for his mail. Brown was in the cage set apart for the post office. He had just received several sheets of six-cent stamps—twice as many as he needed. “Jack,” he said, “when you see Joe tell him I’m out of six-cent stamps.” Within an hour Joe shoved a five dollar bill through the window. “Give me five dollars’ worth of six-cent stamps,” he ordered. Brown picked up the bill, filled the order and never again did Joe ask for merchandise not in stock.

Joe sold a claim and decided he needed a refrigerator to keep the beer cold. So he picked up a Monkey Ward catalogue and ordered a big white enamel number large enough for a hotel. Joe thought a 142refrigerator was just a refrigerator and he strutted around telling everybody. He had to widen the dugout door and waiting customers were more than eager to help him get the machine in place. He loaded the shelves and told them to come back in a couple of hours and cool their innards.

They came with their tongues hanging out. Joe set out the glasses and passed the bottles. Herman Jones picked one up and shook it. The cork hit the ceiling. “Hotter’n hell,” Herman said. “What sort of cooler is that?” He went over and looked. “Gas. You dam’ fool. Nearest gas is Barstow.”

Until Joe’s death he used the refrigerator to store pots and pans.

Discovered in his dugout in a serious condition, Joe was rushed to Death Valley Junction 28 miles away, where the Pacific Coast Borax Company maintained a hospital which was in charge of Dr. Shrum, who was rather realistic and somewhat cold blooded.

Just as they had gotten Joe in the doctor’s office, another patient was brought in. Dr. Shrum looked at the new comer and then at Joe. “Take Joe out,” he ordered. “He’s going to die anyway.”

Joe was wheeled outside and a moment later was dead.

George Williams, a Spanish American war veteran, retired to Shoshone on a pension of $50. Since food was cheap, George had more money than he knew what to do with. He kept five burros. He never prospected, but roamed the country and thought nothing of taking a 300 mile trip across the roughest terrain in the region. After spending his summers in the high country, he would return to Shoshone in winter. There he had a five acre ranch fenced in and a neat cabin.

Every day George would come to the store and buy a pound of chocolates. “I’ve got a sweet tooth,” he would explain.

Charlie, sure that no one could eat as much chocolate as George bought, was a bit curious as to what George did with it and trailed him one day through the mesquite to find George feeding the candy to his burros.

George was not a drinker, but on one occasion he joined a party and went on a bender. He awoke next morning with a horrible hangover and was so humiliated that he left Shoshone and never returned. He went over to Sandy and died in the ’30s.

One day George started to tell me a story as we sat on the bench. His burros were grazing in the nearby salt grass. Every time he reached the climax of his yarn, he would jump up to go after a straying burro. When he retrieved that one, another would wander off and George would leave me again.

For one entire summer I listened to the beginning of that yarn and every morning would remind him of it.

“Where was I?” he’d say. “Oh, yes, I was telling you about the girl climbing out of the fellow’s window just before daylight. Well, she went—”

Then George would jump up and start for a burro, and I never learned what happened to the torrid romance after the girl crawled out of her lover’s window.

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
Intro:: Nature:: Map:: Points of Interest:: Roads & Trails:: People & History:: Ghosts & Gold:: Communities:: BLOG:: Weather:: :?:: glossary
Country Life Realty
Wrightwood, Ca.
Mountain Hardware
Wrightwood, Ca.
Canyon Cartography
Links to Desert Museums

Grizzly Cafe
Family Dining

Custom Search

Abraxas Engineering
These items are historical in scope and are intended for educational purposes only; they are not meant as an aid for travel planning.
Copyright ©Walter Feller. 1995-2023 - All rights reserved.