Ocean Echoes - The Story Of The Return Of Lida
( Originally Published 1922 )
LIDA had been an old silver camp, and in the early sixties it was a booming town. This much was told me by an old squaw man who lived there. He was one of those early miners who stayed on in a town after the mines played out, in the hope that some day it would awake once more to the click of a pistol and the bray of the burro.
He was an Austrian by birth, and his name ended in "vitch." I could never pronounce it. A squaw lived with him who showed the years more than he. The desert wrinkles, like kinks in a juniper, were furrowed in her face. He treated her much as one would an outlaw cayuse, kicking and beating her when he felt like it; and in course of time when prosperity made him independent of the little comfort she gave him, it was said that he doped a bottle of whiskey for her.
Certain it was that she died suddenly, with all the symptoms of poisoning, and that he buried her alongside the pump in the back yard with as little consideration as one would show a mongrel dog. There was no law there to punish him, and the squaw was covered up and soon forgot-ten. He had, in spite of this, a kind of pathetic way with him, and when he told a story to the miners about his poor old mother in Austria they fell for it, and bought drinks from him.
But I am straying ahead of my story. When I first saw him, the squaw was alive, and she and he lived in a 'dobe house at the head of what once had been the principal street of Lida. You could not tell that then. The sage-brush grew over it, covering the wagon ruts, and up on the hill beyond was the graveyard, shrouded in underbrush, dead as dead could be. Few, if any, of the miners buried there had died natural deaths, as the scrawly hand-written grave boards bore witness.
But no decay could obliterate memories of former greatness, and it was decreed that Lida should come to life again, after forty years. A new generation of miners came and took on where the old generation had left off. The town site was grubbed, the brush burned up, and lots were sold to newcomers. Tents went up, the squaw man started a saloon, chips rattled and pistols clicked, and Lida was herself again.
The Austrian's dream had come true. He owned the town site, and money came in fast. His only trouble was with an occasional "lot-jumper," someone who was rash enough to settle in dispute of his quit-claim title to the town lots. But this trouble was a small item, being quickly settled with a gun. He was a big man now, and dictated town policies of the tent town, and signed as many checks as he cashed.
One day, when the old town had been new about six months, a stranger drove up in an automobile. There was nothing unusual in this, but there was something unusual in the man. Big and broad and strong he looked, and his large round face showed that he had been carefully fed. The tan of the desert was missing. His eyes were black and penetrating, and he carried an atmosphere of power over men, which was confirmed by the tight lips which concealed a mouth well filled with fine teeth, and covered by a jet black mustache. He must have been past middle age, for his hair was graying at the temples, and he had quite a swagger as he pulled off his linen duster.
"Yes," said he, without preliminary, as his compelling eye roved over a chance group of miners while he marched about limbering his legs, "Yes, boys, I am going to do things here that will astonish the natives. I'm going to put Lida on the map."
"Vot's dot?" asked the Austrian, sidling up to him with elbows squared, "Vot's dot?"
The stranger saw fit to dispose of him with a stare which had been useful on other similar occasions, and the Austrian growled and went away.
That night there was a meeting in Dutch John's saloon. The stranger took charge. He bought the miners drinks, and told them of Lida's wonderful possibilities. At first, when their vision had been unclouded, they had been inclined to think him an unscrupulous promoter and a crook. Now they fell for his golden words.
"Right at your door, gentlemen," he cried, in concluding a flowery and powerful -speech, "under your eyes, beneath these grand old peaks, is one of the richest gold camps in the world. It is no more than right that we should dedicate a city of granite blocks to those noble spires that have been true to their trust these million years, even if, as my engineers tell me, it will be necessary to abandon the present town site for one on the slope of the hill. Near here, Men of the Hills, are the graves of silent pioneers. If each of those mouldering forms could rise up and speak to you, I am sure they would say, "Move, and buy, and be not afraid, for the future is golden."
Then he bought drinks, and shook each miner by the hand. As he searched the faces, his black eyes spoke: "I'm here to trim you, and trim you right !"
It was plain that the stranger had them going, and the squaw man told them so. He reduced the price of his lots a quarter, a half and he had the main street plowed and rolled. While they commented on how much better it looked, he, too, gave the miners free drinks. His corral gate was opened, and the town burros hee-hawed in, and nibbled on the baled hay. The burro men were pleased, and slapped the squaw man on the back, assuring him of their loyalty to the old town.
At last he gave way to his emotion. With his old face warped in coyote grins he cried : "Vell, Byes, I haf, von ting to do before I vos dead."
The burro men looked at each other. The squaw man waved them away as they tried to pat him on the back. He was shaking as if with a chill. The flimsy pine bar shook with him, and the glasses rattled. Again he spoke : "I do it, and I do it queek !"
He got no further, for a shadow broke the desert sunlight on the floor, and the stranger stood in the doorway.
"Give us a drink, Dutchy," he said quietly, as if the very atmosphere were not charged with hate of him, and as quietly moved up to the bar.
The squaw man reached under the bar with his old desert-bleached hand, and brought up a revolver. The burro men scattered like scud before a gale, but the stranger stood there, leaning against the bar, looking quietly into the terrible face of Dutchy.
The squaw man licked his dry lips and spoke "I vas going to kill you, you damned crook. You steal mine town up mit de hill"
The stranger threw his eyes full on Dutchy. Then he walked along the bar without a word, and wrenched the revolver from him; easily, deliberately, it seemed. Then he slapped him on the jaw.
"Dutchy," he said, and the miners outside the door began to come back at the words; "you may poison squaws, and shoot men in the back, but when it comes to an even break you are a coward. Now hurry and get drinks for the boys. Come on," he called, "the fight is over, and Dutchy feels better now."
We drank, and the stranger pulled out a great roll of bills, stripping them down until he came to a twenty, on which Dutchy's eyes fastened with the look of a greedy hound. The stranger bade him keep the change.
The stranger's reputation was made now. He had proved his steel to the natives of Lida. He was one of those great men of early times whose genius was real, no matter how misdirected. He was an old hand at the game of fleecing, and he knew that before you commence to shear the sheep you must first get them corralled.
He slung his money about like a drunken sailor, and everyone, even the Piute Indians, sang his praises. We believed that there was fabulous wealth in the hills, and that his purpose was to build comfortable homes for the men of the desert; as he said, "to help put windows into the mountains," that we might see the fortunes which were to be ours for the asking.
When a man of the stranger's type visits a desert mining town it is not from choice, but to create a gap in the trail of his reputation. Unfortunately he, who could have played high finance equally well on the square, had chosen the line of least resistance in hidden places.
He had a record, which included a penitentiary term. It was said that there he had sold the warden fifteen thousand dollars worth of wildcat stock, and yet got pardoned. He had been a lawyer, and was gifted with a mind that could squeeze him out of any tight place. His scheme for the new town site in Lida was backed by a Goldfield bank that had no scruples about spending depositors' money. So the new town site was cleared of sage-brush and Joshua, streets were laid out, and blocks plotted.
In vain the squaw man offered us inducements to stay. His cowardice and greed had killed him in face of the stranger's liberality and promises, and like the sheep again, we rolled up our tents and moved them up the hill to the new town.
By this time the stranger had six automobiles, all new, running from Goldfield and bringing in newcomers with money to buy lots. A one-plank sidewalk was laid which was only a preliminary to the granite buildings, but it inspired confidence, for lumber was one hundred and fifty dollars a thousand feet at the railroad sixty miles away. It cost three cents a pound to haul it to Lida by mule-team.
The stranger cared nothing for these minor matters of expense. The bank in Goldfield had plenty of money. The sap-headed depositors were too busy in the mountains hunting gold to bother their heads about banks or plank sidewalks.