Winter 2009, Volume 25.2
David Braly received his B.A. in history from Reed College in 1981. He has been an historical researcher, journalist, and is the author of Crooked River Country, (Washington State University Press, 2007). His short stories have appeared in numerous American and European magazines and in anthologies.
Actually he was in Creekbank for only half an hour. That was how long the stagecoach laid over to allow the stationmaster to change the horses and feed the passengers. Probably nobody in the sleepy little town would have taken any notice of him if he had remained in the station with the other passengers. It was unusual not to remain there. Few stage passengers, especially a man as well-groomed and well-dressed as he, took any interest in Creekbank, except perhaps to ask how soon they could leave it. But he walked out of the station and strolled down the wooden sidewalks, his manner casual and yet somehow not casual at all. It was the blue eyes under his fine gray hat and above his neatly combed gray mustache that denied the easy pace of his feet. The eyes were not casual. They were alive, restless, observant.
Many men noticed him during his stroll. The afternoon was warm and brilliant, one of those bright days when every blade of grass and every board of wood and every pebble of stone appeared to reflect and indeed lambently radiate the sun’s resplendent glow. Sunshine glittered off the false fronts of the old wooden buildings on Main Street, gave a cozy luster to the three modern stone edifices there, and caused a sharp glare to emanate from all the windows facing south and west. The summer splendor was why so many noticed him: a large portion of the male population was on the sidewalks when he took the stroll, some of them leaning lethargically against the posts of awnings, some lounging in wooden chairs tilted against store walls, some seated on the edges of the sidewalks in a leaden, heavy, dull manner, their hands slowly working pocketknives upon sticks, whittling perpetually, making smaller the small pieces of wood. Once there had been among some of them what passed for conversation on such sparkling and idle afternoons, but the subjects had been inconsequential and soporific, the interest in them slothful, and the words themselves spoken in a manner lackadaisical, listless, and slow. The indolence had been all the deeper because both the glowing weather and the resulting male hibernation were now two weeks old. For that reason, the brisk tread of the stranger’s polished boots upon the sun-bleached boards of the sidewalk came almost as a shock, waking all but the most sluggish from the general stupor, and, at the same moment, arousing an inactive curiosity.
For his part the man in the suit said nothing. He merely nodded now and again at the loafers as he continued his steady pace. He continued to act casual. Yet even the younger idlers could see that he had a purpose. It wasn’t just the restless eyes. It wasn’t only that his pace was a might too brisk for a casual promenade. It wasn’t merely that he had the mouth and jaw and posture of a man of purpose. Rather it was the sum of all these things added together.
"Now who do you suppose that is?" asked Caleb Hayes after the stranger had passed.
"Darned if I know," replied Jim Taylor.
Hayes and Taylor were seated next to each other on peg-back wooden chairs in front of the town’s two-story rooming house, which bore a sign beside the door proclaiming it the Palace Hotel. The two men were both in their mid-thirties, and they often sat together on the sidewalk or in the saloon. Hayes was married to the proprietor of the rooming house, and sometimes could be prevailed upon to act as desk clerk. Taylor was a handyman, which is another way of saying that he was capable of more profitable employment but would just as soon not.
"He sure isn’t from around here," added Taylor unnecessarily.
They, in common with every man on both sides of Main who had been roused at least partly out of somnolence, watched the unfamiliar straight-backed man in his sixties. He continued briskly down the sidewalk until he reached the middle of Fourth Street. Fourth was really nothing more than a gap in the row of small stores and ramshackle cabins, merely an unofficial and perhaps subconsciously agreed upon ground where people would not build, in order to allow for the traffic of pedestrians, horses, and wagons. In the middle of the "street," at the place where it intersected with Main, he stopped.
Every man who could see him watched while the stranger casually turned to look down the short row of frowsy little wooden buildings. Fourth Street, as they all knew, became a "road" up onto Cougar Butte. Although the butte was visible from almost anywhere in Creekbank, the stranger had intentionally or accidentally selected the ideal place along Main for looking at it. Which did not explain why he would wish to look at it. It was, after all, merely a butte, 3,200 feet high, identical to hundreds of others throughout the West. He stood there for a minute, idly reaching into his inside coat pocket for a cigar and lighting it and flipping the match onto the dirt street. And then he started back.
The heads along Main moved as if connected to one neck, each one turning from the left to straight forward. Only a couple of oldtimers continued to stare openly at the stranger. Many younger eyes, however, watched him surreptitiously.
He sauntered back to the station in almost the same quick yet seemingly relaxed manner that he had strolled from it. Again his pace had a false casualness, again he nodded at several of the dawdlers and all of the ladies he encountered, again he spoke not a word. The only difference was that the rich odor of his fine cigar trailed in his wake. The eyes followed him back to the station.
"Now what do you suppose that was about?" asked Hayes.
"Probably nothing. Probably just wanted to stretch his legs. He musta come off the stage."
Interest in the stranger began to flag as soon as he was out of sight, but a few continued to wonder what he had been doing. Five minutes later, when the stagecoach rumbled down Main on its way to the next town, the stranger tossed his cigar out the window. The men watched the coach continue down Main and the road from Main, until it disappeared over the timbered horizon. All that remained of the visit was the cigar, which continued to send up a thin thread of smoke from the earthen street.
A half hour later Caleb Hayes rose from his chair, rubbed the aches in his back, and started down the sidewalk.
"Where you headed?" asked Taylor.
"I’m going down to see what that fellow was looking at."
"What do you mean? You already know what’s down there."
"I know. But something’s peculiar."
Taylor watched his friend plod stiffly down the sidewalk and debated whether to follow him. He, too, was mildly curious about what the stranger had been looking at. But he was sure what the view there had been, having looked down the "street" a thousand or more times. That certainty of knowledge, coupled with his languor, convinced him that the excursion would be a waste of his time. He did continue to watch Hayes, though, and the man’s behavior confirmed the wisdom of his own inertness. For, having reached the intersection where the stranger had stood, Hayes stood looking down the "street" for several minutes, not indicating by facial or other expression any flicker of new knowledge obtained before he finally turned and started trudging back to his chair.
"Well?" demanded Taylor when he returned.
Hayes shrugged his shoulders. "Cougar Butte," he said. "Same as always."
"He was just stretching his legs."
"Musta been. Odd way to do it, though."
"Well, some people are odd."
"That’s true. Still, I’m not sure that’s the explanation."
Hayes resumed his seat, and soon resumed the thoughtless doze that was his preferred state on warm summer afternoons, now as usual occasionally interrupted only by the busy tread of a female on some errand.
Following dinner, Hayes and Taylor individually found their way to Hackett’s saloon, where they joined Jed Ames and Tom Maher in a game of poker. The evening was warm and dry, the air alive with mosquitoes and moths, and the cheap whiskey tasted surprisingly fresh for something so familiar. The game proceeded in its usual quiet and unhurried manner, until Nat Ferguson walked past the table. Hayes lowered his cards and called out to him. Ferguson turned back.
"Say, Nat, I’ve been wondering about a passenger you had at the station this afternoon," said Hayes. "A tall man with gray hair and mustache, dressed in a city suit and wide-brim gray hat."
"I know exactly who you mean. He walked out of the station without eating. I told the driver that I hoped he made it back before the stage left. He said, if he didn’t, he guessed he’d better wait."
"A driver said he’d wait?" asked Taylor. "Now that is something new under the sun."
"I thought the same, and remarked upon it. Gordy—the driver—said it never paid a working man to be overly strict about rules with someone who might know his boss or his boss’ banker. And he said that the man who walked out just might, because he was Will Selby."
"The Will Selby?" asked Hayes.
"The very same."
"What the heck is one of the richest men in the country doing in Creekbank?"
"Just passing through on his way somewhere else."
"If that’s true, why did he leave the station and walk all the way to Fourth Street simply to look at Cougar Butte?"
"Cougar Butte? Selby looked at it?"
"Yes, of course," said Hayes impatiently. "He musta spent—what, Jim?—five minutes simply staring at it."
"About that long," affirmed Taylor.
"Cougar Butte, huh?"
That was about all it took to start the excitement. The word spread fast that Will Selby had been examining Cougar Butte. Everyone understood what it meant. Selby had made his first fortune when he discovered a rich vein of silver on the Comstock Lode. Following that, there was seldom a discovery of gold, silver, or copper anywhere in the West that Selby was not involved with. He owned mines or shares in mines in California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Arizona. Although there were richer mining tycoons, few of them enjoyed Selby’s reputation for discovering new deposits. Often it had been said that Selby could smell minerals. Indeed, it had been said so often over so many years that there were even a few yokels who took the compliment literally. Will Selby studying a piece of land, especially a butte forty miles from an old mining district, could mean only one thing. Before the evening ended, the excitement had spread through the saloon, and out of the saloon through the town.
The following morning the sun had barely cast a faint glow over the eastward evergreen forest when a group of men assembled at Main and Fourth. There was no plan to the assembly, no suggestion earlier that it be held, but rather the men came together one and two at a time. They all had the same purpose: to look at Cougar Butte.
It hadn’t changed. At least it hadn’t changed physically. It still rose beyond the Rausch ranch 3,200 feet into the air, a dusky brown mound laden with dark junipers and scrub pine, with basalt rims and outcroppings. And yet, somehow, it actually had changed. It held promise. Not a man gathered there stared at it without a new enthusiasm for its existence and an ardor for his own individual acquaintanceship with it.
"It isn’t his," said Taylor. "Selby don’t have a claim on it."
"Nobody does, leastwise not yet," affirmed Maher. "But anybody mining on it can place one there. The whole butte is public land."
"Well," said Hayes, "what the heck are we waiting for?"
That’s when the rush began.
Everyone broke from the group, intent upon pursuing the treasure of Cougar Butte in his own way. What each one of them had in common was gold fever. It was in the throb of their hearts, the ecstatic thoughts of their minds, and the spirited flight of their feet. Gold. Gold!! GOLD!!!
Cooler heads tried to prevail. Dick Parks, the town’s only lawyer, and Simon Weiss, the grocer and mayor, tried to reason with the men. Vic Sheffield informed his ranch hands that anyone who left the range to join the rush would never work for him again, but most of them left anyway. Margie Hayes and other women argued vehemently against wasting time and money digging up Cougar Butte, but to no avail. No one could stop the stampede, especially with Pearson the dry goods merchant whipping it up until the last of his hardware and mining supplies had been cleared from the shelves.
By early afternoon the bustle had moved from the town to the butte itself. Men, horses, and wagons covered the entire east face of the hill, which boiled with energy and passion. Holes, too, began to cover the butte. The human dynamos would tackle one area, vehemently shoveling out a promising spot, and moments later rush to another spot and begin digging there with equal gusto. When the sun began to sink in the west, and the few clouds there burned red, the men redoubled their efforts, fearing that if they did not discover the gold by dark, they would never discover it at all. Darkness came. And still they dug. The zeal and heat of their almost desperate search diminished only slightly. Most of them remained on the butte all night, some building a fire and pitching a camp, some keeping warm by sheer fervor as they continued to dig.
Their exertions continued when the sun reappeared. The thrill had diminished, but not the intoxication. There was less exploration, more steady purpose in their hole-making, at least until one o’clock.
That was when the men from Turnbull began to arrive. They came with picks and shovels and the same seething hunger that yesterday had animated the searchers from Creekbank. The Creekbank men noted the arrival with dismay and hot rage.
"It’s our butte!" protested Caleb Hayes. "They’ve no right to come over and dig up our butte!"
But they had every right; it was public land.
The Creekbank men cussed fiercely and spoke encouraging words to one another and thereby grimly fortified their resolution and determination, and set anew to digging. The newcomers, tingling with anticipation and rabid with lust for the shiny metal, brought a vigor that was as fresh as it was hot. They quickly became angry upon discovering that the choicest spots were already gone. A few fights erupted. But most of the men were too occupied with exploring the spots available to worry much about the spots they had been denied.
During the next several days more people arrived. Soon the butte was completely covered with the diggers, the wagons, the horses, and of course the holes. Men, and a few women too, came from great distances to try their hand at unearthing the gold. Gradually the heaving, sweltering, almost panic-driven energy of the first two days gave way to a steady plodding industry.
"Say, I think I’ve found something," said Hayes on the eighth day.
Taylor walked over and looked. "It’s yellow, but it ain’t gold."
"I think it is."
"It ain’t." He turned and looked down the face of the butte at the teeming throng of humanity, at the disheveled earth, at the debris and fires and holes. "I don’t think there’s a sliver of gold anywhere on this butte."
"Selby thinks there is."
"Does he? I ain’t so sure. He hasn’t returned. Maybe he was just stretching his legs."
"He wasn’t. And I’m darned glad he hasn’t come back because I think I’ve found the gold he was after."
Selby did return.
He entered Creekbank ten days after his first visit, arriving as before on an afternoon stagecoach, but this time from the opposite direction. He found everything different except the dull wooden and stone buildings. The few men and women who walked down the sidewalks did not loiter, and no one loafed on the outside chairs. The weather had also changed. The warmth and brightness were gone, replaced by a mute chill and a solid layer of cloud that hung low like a dark gray shroud over the town.
When the passengers disembarked, Will Selby alone did not go inside the station to partake of the lunch whose inviting aroma had drifted out to the coach. Instead, he started walking slowly down the sidewalk. The chill penetrated his coat and made him uncomfortable. He nodded politely without speaking to the people he encountered.
"Hello, Mr. Selby."
Selby stopped and turned to face the man who had spoken to him. The man appeared to be in his mid-thirties, had a thin build and a weak little brown mustache, and wore a dark green shirt, brown coat, brown bowler, brown pants, and mud-encrusted boots. For a moment Selby studied the narrow face and the grey eyes, but he did not recognize the man.
"I’m sorry," he said. "Do we know each other?"
"Oh, no sir, Mr. Selby. But I certainly know who you are. Yessir, I certainly do."
One of those, thought Selby with annoyance. Would this one ask for information or for money? Possibly he would simply want to gush out words of praise. Selby had encountered people of this sort ever since he made his first million, but he had never become accustomed to them. They disgusted him.
"My name," said the man, "is Caleb Hayes."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hayes," said Selby without even trying to sound sincere. "If you’ll excuse me, I wanted to stretch my legs for a few minutes before our journey resumes."
"Of course. Allow me to accompany you."
Selby said nothing in response, merely resumed his stroll down the sidewalk. He hated the company but it would only be for a few minutes. He had endured many a longer trial. The tread of the four boots upon the wooden sidewalk continued apace for another two blocks. There, Selby stepped into the hard dirt street and turned to look.
What he had expected to see was a wooded butte about three thousand feet high, sitting serenely above the timbered range of a nearby ranch. Ten days ago it had been there, dark and tall against the rich blue sky. No longer.
What now stood in the distance was an ugly, scarred, hapless ruin, a blighted remnant of a hill that had been swamped by a greed-driven cataclysmic human flood and then smashed, battered, and almost obliterated. He had not seen the rush. Somehow he had not heard news of it. But he did not need to see it or hear of it to know what had done this. He had seen many earlier rushes and recognized the signs. Time after time he had seen creeks, valleys, and hills submerged by a ruthless, devouring humanity intent upon overthrowing every natural obstacle that separated their fingers from veins of gold or silver. Time after time he had seen the creeks, valleys, and hills shattered and devastated, broken and leveled, even completely eradicated by the fierce horde. Time after time he had seen thriving nature reduced to a dismantled and crumbling relic. And he saw it now, again, beneath the low grey sky. The butte had become another casualty. The trees were gone. The whole hill was a vast waste of scarred earth and abandoned garbage. It stood in the distance not as the timbered little mountain of ten days ago, but as a dark, torn, huge earthen gravestone. Upon this funereal mound were people who at this distance looked like tiny vermin swarming over the corpse of a dead animal.
"Looks as though someone’s been busy since I was here a few days ago," said Selby.
"Indeed. We’ve had a gold rush."
"A gold rush? No gold has ever been discovered within forty miles of here. What on earth prompted people to try to extract gold from that old butte?"
Selby turned to Hayes in astonishment. "I did?! What do you mean, ‘I did’?"
"You were recognized when you came through town ten days ago. And we all had seen what you’d done."
"What I’d done? What had I done?"
Hayes smiled indulgently. "You came straight here," he said. "You walked right to this very spot and you turned and you looked at Cougar Butte and you stood here studying it for almost ten minutes."
"I did nothing of the sort! I walked here in the most casual manner. I was just stretching my legs after spending an hour in that cramped little coach. And I didn’t stand here for ten minutes. Why, man, I had to return to the station or be left. I spent less than a minute here. And while it’s true that I was looking in the butte’s direction, I actually only gave it the swiftest glance. What I was looking at was an eagle that was circling between here and the butte. I was trying to make out whether it was an American or a golden eagle. And anyway, just what does my walking and looking at the butte have to do with the rush?"
"You’ve got a reputation," said Hayes, his familiar manner in no way attenuated by Selby’s disclaimers. "When Will Selby studies a butte, a man just naturally knows that there’s gold in the butte."
"What! Why, that’s insanity! I’ve looked at all sorts of natural features without people assuming that there was gold in them. And I didn’t ‘study’ the butte; I merely glanced toward it."
"You are too modest, sir."
"I am nothing of the sort," snapped Selby in frustration.
He looked up again at the forlorn butte. Even from here he could make out the wagons and the piles of refuse, the latter readily indicated by the grey or black smoke that rose above them in melancholy columns. The swarm of humanity upon the butte disrupted his every effort at a positive thought. It was all an irretrievable, irrevocable, irreparable undoing.
"This is awful," he said. "If my reputation has led to this foolishness, then I have a sorry reputation indeed."
"I tell you, sir, I was only stretching my legs and watching the eagle. There is no gold in that butte. I have never harbored a suspicion in my entire life that any valuable mineral was within forty miles of here."
"Is that a fact?"
"It is indeed, sir!"
They continued to stare at the butte.
Hayes reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a cigar. He handed it across to Selby. The latter, astonished by the man’s familiarity, started to decline but noticed the red band around it. It was the very expensive Havana brand that he himself favored. He studied it for a moment. Finally he took it and slowly rolled it in his fingers examining it. Slowly he tore off the band. But he did not light the cigar.
"Tell me, sir," said Selby. "What line are you in?"
Selby looked up at the dead butte again, a sardonic smile on his face. "I suspect everybody in Creekbank is in the mining business at the moment. What line were you in before you took up mining."
"My wife and I own the hotel."
Selby had seen the little two-story "hotel." He looked again at the cigar and rolled it gently between his fingers.
"The next time I enter a town," he said, "I’ll wear a disguise."
"It might be wise."
"East ridge, about a thousand feet from the summit?"
"Yep. And the assay shows it’s top quality."
"Congratulations." Selby put the cigar between his lips and lit it. "Yes, next time I’ll wear a disguise."