By Andrew Sharp
Benjamin Bailey’s supper fled away down the mountain in stiff-legged springs, heading rapidly out of range of his rifle. He watched the small herd of mule deer hungrily, but he did not shoot. He knew his bullet would likely just land on sagebrush and he was running low on shells.
He was running low on everything — food, water, energy and hope, along with ammunition.
Of those, the last one he wanted to run out of was ammunition. He needed at least one shell.
He had come to Nevada with plenty of energy and hope, and had picked up the other supplies after arrival, including a lightly used Winchester .44-40, Model 1873, the cowboy’s gun that had captured Eastern imaginations. He wouldn’t have been able to hit a bison if it had dropped in for coffee, while the real western veterans could, or liked to say they could, shoot fleas off a dog from across town. Still, the gun did give him a sense of comfort, a feeling that he might be able to augment the short arm of the law, or that people might mistake him for someone who could.
Despite his nervousness about the do-it-yourself style of law and order, that was part of what lured him to Nevada. Ben was no gunslinger or mountain man, no one-man kingdom enforcing his rules at gunpoint. But back in Philadelphia, he was glued in place in the social mosaic. All the property and resources were claimed and their allocation monitored by rules and regulations piled up over the generations. Merchants, traders and laborers struggled to make a meager profit, working their whole lives and then dying and passing their allotted opportunity on to their children, while the wealthy sent their children to Harvard to learn to rule. There was no unclaimed gold in Philadelphia.
In the west, though, the nuggets were lying around, waiting for someone to find them. Everyone knew the about the one found in Nevada that had been worth $5,000, or was it $20,000? It was just lying in a sandbar, according to the story, or in some versions in the bottom of a creek, and a man out for a Sunday stroll had picked it up, a $20,000 profit in an afternoon. With a week’s work, Ben was happy to make a few dollars.
Ben was a simple man, not a starry-eyed dreamer looking to make it rich and then throw it away on women and drink. He did not need $20,000 nuggets, at least not right away. Small $1,000 nuggets would be fine with him. He’d find a good claim, work it for a couple of years and get a few thousand out of it, and then build a ranch with a nice Western-sounding name like the Aspen Range or the Ponderosa. He wanted hard work with real payoff and no lawyers and government officials looking over his shoulder all the time.
Once he decided to leave, he was almost feverish to start. He imagined other, undeserving miners, probably with no careful plans of their own, bumbling into his claim through blind luck. The greedy hordes were spreading out over the land taking everything, in his mind. Later he would feel silly about this; raised in the city, he had no inkling of the vastness of the West, the long miles of empty land that swallowed up the handful of men willing to risk everything and start over on a chance.
In Philadelphia, he had been almost secretive, buying up supplies and making arrangements quietly, as if when the city found out that he, Benjamin Bailey, was going to Nevada, the dam would break and the entire city would flow west. “What, him? Well, if he’s going, I’m going too.”
But the few friends he did tell showed no sign of rushing off to sell all they had and buy train tickets. Instead, they made unkind insinuations about “gold fever” and warned him about the perils of greed. “You’re wasting everything I spent my life building,” his father had argued with him. “Not one in a hundred is going to do any good out there. You may as well sell the store and take it all to the racetrack.” Cynics and pessimists, Ben called them. He had a dream for a good life. He feared missing his chance. Was that greed?
When he stepped off the stagecoach in Ely, Nevada, the first thing he noticed was the color. For all the talk of gold, what Nevada seemed to have in abundance was items in the brown and gray variety, from the dark gray bare rock of the mountain slag, down to the lighter gray sagebrush on the dusty valley flatlands. Wherever people moved, the dirt was puffed up into clouds of brown dust like cocoa powder that blew, settled down on hats and coats and store counters, and gritted on teeth. Rarely was there any rain to knock it down again.
Color here was like water — a treasure, savored when found; the vivid red of the Indian paintbrush nestled in the gray sagebrush, or the brief brilliant yellow of the aspen display in the fall higher up in the mountains, set off by the sober dark color of the evergreens. Most of the vegetation hung on, grim and determined, simply existing and not needing to make a display out of it. It had been there before the miners and was ready to survive there long after they had carried away all the metal that had brought them.
The land seemed as if it were designed to showcase the sky, to not distract from its displays of breathtaking color, the clouds blazing red and pink and orange at sunset, towering piles of white clouds high above the dust, racing through the vivid blue afternoon sky, the black and green of the fierce thunderstorms cut through with sharp lightning bolts. At night, the stars were so thick and close it seemed you could reach up with a stick and stir them into whirling galaxies.
Back east, the balance had been better. Ben did not remember much about the sunsets or the sky. What he did remember now were the creeks, the waterfalls, the almost criminal waste of water that poured in the millions of gallons out to the sea, the constant spring rains that fed the abundant green weeds, wildlfowers, and crops of summer.
Osceola, a little growing settlement of about 1,000 people, was in the general area where gold was to be found in the region. Accordingly that was where Ben made his headquarters, in a ramshackle cabin a little way up a ravine called Dry Gulch. The town was in the middle of a mountain range that ran roughly north and south. Sagebrush barrens stretched to the east and west on either side, dotted with cattle loosely organized into ranches and lonely Basque shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.
Ben’s cabin was not the worst in town, but when you had said that, there was little more to add by way of praise. There were respectable gaps in the walls that did little to discourage the winter wind and nothing to discourage the vermin, and the chimney was apathetic about its task of discharging the smoke outdoors. The floors were dirt.
It was fairly typical in the town, which had been hastily thrown together to shelter incoming floods of men come together to compete for wealth. The more wealthy residents could boast of their simple wood frame buildings, with virtually no major holes in the walls. There were a couple of saloons, and a house or two where one could obtain feminine company. Many people lived in shanties that were more piles of material, incorporating rock and logs and tarpaper and tin and whatever else was handy.
Ben searched for a mining claim for several months without any luck, and then, with not much better luck, worked an unproductive claim for another year, eating his life savings and spending it on supplies. Doom seemed to hang in the smoke cloud in the chilly evenings in his shack, as he waved smoke out of his face and scratched out optimistic letters home. The savagery of the place pressed down on him. He saw men worn down and used up by the cold winters and brutal summers that killed their horses and cattle.
For every successful store, hotel, ranch or mining claim in the Osceola region, there were a hundred men who died without reaching their dreams, or who were killed in mining disputes or robberies, whose cattle perished or disappeared. Hard work needed some luck to go with it and the dice didn’t favor most.
The dice did not seem to be rolling for Ben. His first claim had yielded only a few dollars in gold flakes, enough to buy a little food, but nothing to build on. So he agreed immediately when an old miner told him he had found a decent location but wanted a partner so he could claim more ground and have an extra hand.
The miner’s name was James T. Randolph, Ben found out when they signed their papers. Until that time Ben had known him as Bullfrog, a name the miner had earned with his habit of singing loudly and out of tune to himself when he was in a good mood.
He was in a good mood a lot, and so the neighborhood was often serenaded with his booming tones.
Bullfrog was known as a good miner and above reproach by miners’ moral standards, which meant he put in long days of work, didn’t cheat at cards and limited himself to moderate drinking, never more than 12 drinks in a sitting. He was welcome at every table in every saloon, and Ben considered himself very lucky to have landed a partnership with him.
Bullfrog was patient with Ben’s mistakes and taught him how to find any gold, if it was there. The old miner had been right about the claim. It was a solid one, and Ben’s hope, which had been running low with his savings, picked up again. They made more than enough money for their supplies and bills, and began saving extra.
“You know what we oughtta do?” Bullfrog told him one day. “We’re getting enough we could put our pot together and buy a ranch or something, or a hotel, something that will make us money when this runs out. Can’t do this forever anyway. We’re not getting any younger.”
This fell in exactly with Ben’s plans, so the only discord was over which option to pick. Bullfrog was enamored with the idea of a saloon and hotel called Bullfrog ‘N Ben’s, but the Ben half of the enterprise thought that was a silly name and also preferred to live in the country, out in the invigorating air herding cattle.
“We’re too old to ranch,” Bullfrog argued.
“You’re too old,” Ben said. “I can do most of the work. You can just help out as you’re able.” Bullfrog did not seem to accept this in the generous spirit it was offered, and they let the topic drop.
Despite these divergent goals, they fell into a happy routine of hard work, beginning the days with Bullfrog’s supreme flapjacks (Ben had to wash the dishes) and ending with a quiet drink (or several) over the campfire, the air seasoned with the rich smoke of Bullfrog’s pipe and filled with his stories from a life of western roaming. Even if they weren’t true, Ben felt they were some of the best he had heard.
The question of future plans became more urgent one day in the early summer, when Ben uncovered some large gravel that seemed at first like gold nuggets. As he examined them, they looked more like gold nuggets. He was suspicious, trying to hold back his excitement, because he knew that only a greenhorn would expect to find nuggets this big or plentiful.
“Come look at this,” he called to Bullfrog, who wandered over and took the rocks in his hand. He turned them over a few times in silence without showing any emotion, and Ben felt the disappointment begin, even though he had known all along it was not really gold.
Then Bullfrog’s face cracked into a huge smile. “We’ve struck it, Ben!”
Ben felt as if he were going to lose his balance. The pressure he had been carrying suddenly lifted off his shoulders, and he realized it had been heavier than he thought. Its absence, and the fact he was newly wealthy, left him feeling light and giddy. What would they say in Philadelphia now? He might be covered in mud and dressed in rags like a hobo, but he could ride back East in a new suit and buy a house with running hot and cold water. He could have his old store back, and a dozen like it, if he wanted, which he most certainly did not want.
Bullfrog was shouting and jumping around, grabbing him by the shoulders, and Ben joined in, and they leaped around in circles like square dancers without a fiddle.
They worked that claim urgently for the rest of the summer, scarcely stopping to eat, and found a good deal of gold. Finally, by the autumn, they started finding less, not more. They had to take turns sleeping at night to guard their stockpiled treasure, which they kept in a chest at their campsite on the claim. Bullfrog wouldn’t trust it to a bank.
“Damned if I let some bandit come in there waving a pistol and walk off with my hard-earned gold,” he said.
Ben pointed out that the bandit could do the same thing in their camp, and that bank robberies were fairly rare, but Bullfrog put his foot down on this point.
They were already wealthy men, and the gold was waiting to be spent. Mining had lost its expectant savor. If they couldn’t find nuggets, it seemed like too much work. They decided to sell the claim and invest their money.
Where to invest that money was what still divided them. The day they sold the claim, they booked a room in a hotel in town and then talked long into the night. They built sprawling ranches and hotel empires, railroad stock fortunes and trading fleets. Ben kept coming back to buying a ranch in the area. He had come to like it here, and now that it was not likely to ruin him he could enjoy it properly.
Bullfrog still held out for his business, a saloon or a hotel, city life and commerce. He had been a bumpkin his whole life, he said, and now he meant to get a suit and become the mayor, and maybe a senator eventually. A modest man, he thought he would decline to run for president.
They eventually had to turn in for the night without resolving the issue.
When Ben rolled over and sat up the next morning, he was alone in the room, and the chest where they kept their gold was empty. He yanked on some clothes and rushed out into the hotel’s bar to find Bullfrog and tell him the terrible news. Bullfrog wasn’t there, and the innkeeper hadn’t seen him. Ben hurried outside, where the street was empty in the quiet gray of the early morning. A few lamps were on in windows, and an old miner was sitting on a porch across the street chewing tobacco. He told Ben around his chaw that Bullfrog had in fact come out not long before, and headed out of town.
“Looked like he was in a hurry, too,” he said. “Any trouble? Say, are you feeling all right?”
Ben kicked the empty wooden chest into shards of cedar, and then hobbled around cursing and throwing together a bedroll, some basic food, and his gun. The loss of the gold was hard to take, but the deeper hurt was that he had trusted Bullfrog completely. He had trusted Bullfrog’s friendship, but Eastern greenhorn that he was, had been made a fool of.
He didn’t have much of a plan. The old miner had pointed south, into the mountains, when asked which way Bullfrog had gone. Ben wondered why Bullfrog hadn’t just gone to Ely and caught the stage, but realized that he was smart enough to know he couldn’t outrun telegraph messages, which Ben certainly would have used to beat him to the next stop. By disappearing into the mountains, he could avoid the law, put some distance between any pursuers and come out anywhere. Ben figured, though, that Bullfrog might stick to the mountains for some time, to make tracking harder and to avoid being seen.
There would only be one pursuer, as Ben figured a smaller committee would streamline the justice process. He knew he faced long odds. The mountains were big, and Bullfrog could cut out into the valleys at any time, or double back, or head south until he got to Mexico. He could be anywhere, and certainly had the money to buy what he needed. Ben, by contrast, had nothing except a little leftover food and even had to sneak out of the hotel to avoid the bill he now could not afford.
Ben forced his horse as fast as it could go around the heaps of gray slag, over rocky ridges and through groves of stubby pines. Sometimes he would hit a stream, where there would be meadows of wildflowers and grass. The air was getting crisp with fall, and he rode through groves of golden aspen.
After a couple of days of streaming sweat, maneuvering over and around and back, starting and stopping, cursing and crying, he was saddle sore, dead tired, running out of ammunition and hungry. He had eaten the food he brought and now had to rely on his marksmanship to bring down game, which was why he was so hungry. A big target like a deer, not moving, was well within his skill, but he had to see one first. So far, all he had done was burn up a number of shells on a hopping jackrabbit.
He puzzled over what he was going to do on the slim chance he stumbled across Bullfrog. The man was not likely to stay around for a chat without some blunt encouragement. In some of Ben’s more gratifying scenarios, he confronted Bullfrog, but Bullfrog tried to ride away and he shot him off the horse. In calmer moments he would hold his gun on Bullfrog until the old traitor was forced to put down the bag of gold, and then order him in a tough voice, “Now you get out of here! And I don’t want to ever see you again!” If he were feeling particularly generous, they would split the gold, but that scenario did not have quite the ring of justice to it that Ben was looking for.
He also wondered what he would do if he couldn’t find Bullfrog. Part of the reason he kept riding blindly was that to go back was to give up, to trust to luck that he could scratch out another claim. He knew that was a stretch. He wouldn’t get lucky again, and he may as well try his luck out here as back in town. The company mine was already crowding out independent miners, buying up land, bringing in hundreds of laborers. He would end up as a laborer, maintaining the canal, working for a meager wage, supervising a team of Chinese or Indians or worse, working with them. Or he could sign on as a cowhand at a ranch, or as a shepherd, and die poor out here. Or, he could go back East and admit defeat, and pick up where he had left off, except poorer, starting over again, having wasted years, and die poor there. Going back was the end of the dream, but out here it was still out there ahead of him, riding away.
As he watched the mule deer herd flee, delicious roasts of venison leaping down into the valley, Ben lowered his gun and rested his head on his hand. A breeze whipped down off the mountain and tugged at his shirt, bearing the advance traces of coming winter. He stood up and stretched. Time to ride on.
Then he froze. In the distance, back toward the way he had come, came a faint gunshot. Could he have passed Bullfrog? Or maybe it was just some rancher on a fall hunt. Ben pulled off his hat and rubbed his forehead, and looked around the rough terrain. Yes, he would go back. Any hint was better than riding blindly ahead.
Late the next morning, Ben sat on a rocky outcrop with his back against a scrubby juniper, looking off down the ridge and wishing for mouthful of some other food besides the remnants of the unwary marmot he was chewing. He had found no trace of anyone when he rode back in the direction he had heard the shot. After hours of meandering he had gotten desperate, riding in widening circles for miles. It was utter folly to keep going now, low on food and ammo, and he knew it. He was done.
Several hundred yards away downhill, Bullfrog walked out from behind a rock, leading his horse. Ben could see the lumpy brown pack they had stored the gold in, lashed to the horse’s back. Ben watched him, a marmot bone still sticking out of his mouth.
Then Ben eased up his rifle, working to steady the sights on his former partner and friend. His finger trembled against the smooth curve of the trigger.
Bullfrog glanced his way, stared for a moment, then leaped for his horse. Ben followed him with the gun sights and squeezed the trigger. He knew that the gun had gone off but it seemed to have made little noise or recoil, as if it were far away, a background noise that had little to do with what was going on. Bullfrog stumbled and fell, but then scrambled to his feet and clawed his way onto the horse. Ben worked the lever and fired again, then again. Bullfrog whipped the horses into a gallop. Ben aimed very carefully at Bullfrog’s bouncing back and squeezed the trigger again.
The gun clicked. He was out of shells.
Cursing, he reached into his pack and felt around for more. There were no more.
He sat panting, staring down at his now useless gun.
Then he propped the rifle against the juniper tree, walked back to his horse, and rode away toward town.
“Archaeologists conducting surveys in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park came upon a gun frozen in time: a .44-40 Winchester rifle manufactured in 1882. It was propped up against a juniper tree.”
The Washington Post
Jan. 14, 2015