Ocean Echoes - Town Of Lida
( Originally Published 1922 )
DUTCHY was alone now. No inducement he could make would hold anyone, and he was left pretty much to the company of stray burros, and the dead squaw under the pump. His hair and beard grew long and weedy. The nails on his fingers resembled the talons of an eagle, his overalls and shirt-front were dirty and spattered with flour dough. He refused to visit the new town, although the stranger, knowing that he had money, used every wile to get him there, and stayed on in the old Lida, praying for a vengeance that he had him-self failed to get.
The mountains chimed the echoes of pounding steel. The exploding giant powder rang through the canyons like the roar of an angry bull. Hill-sides were torn open by the hungry, gaunt, and ravenous miners. Women were there, too, with boots and picks on their shoulders, and as savage as the male brutes in their scrambling greed.
The old graveyard of the sixties was grubbed of its underbrush, and a fence stuck around it. Many fresh graves were made open to be filled by men who were clumsy with a gun. One day a woman of the underworld was to be buried there. She might have gone on living, it was said, had she had a good doctor. There was a doctor there, but he had waited until he was forty-five years old to graduate by a correspondence course. Meantime he ran a hoist.
When a man died, very little attention was paid to him. He was boxed up as a matter of course, dumped into the grave, and as quickly forgotten. But with this woman it was different.
There was a feeling of sentiment in the air. Those rough men of the hills threw down their picks and put their giant powder away, and wandered solemnly into town. She who now lay stretched in death on a cot in the back end of a saloon and who had received little in life but whiskey, grunts and kicks from men she was going to have a funeral. However little her joy may have been in her frock-apron days, her spirit must rejoice now at the faces sorrowing at her departure from the clay.
There was a Scotchman in the hills who in days gone by had been a Presbyterian minister. He was sent for to bury the prostitute.
There was another sorrow on the wing to Lida, far greater to the minds of most men than the death of her who had bartered her body that brutes might lust to scorn her.
The bank in Goldfield, to which the stranger had given his brains that the new town of Lida might grow, had gotten about all of the people's money that it needed. The president and the cashier had absconded, stealing everything but a five-dollar gold piece and a five-cent piece that rolled under the safe. That was all that was left of a hundred thousand dollars of deposits. The news was to strike Lida when the miners were in from the hills, drawn by the funeral to meet in a greater grief.
They were all small depositors, and their hundred dollars or so represented years of deprivation in the desert, misery, thirst, and hunger. Lida would be swept off the map as quickly as she had been put on it. Her granite buildings that were to welcome the morning rays of the desert sun, must now mirage the specter of a thief's glory the granite ghost of yesterday.
That day the stranger did not face the music. By the time the stage-coach brought the news of disaster, he had sought trails still more hidden from the light of day. The driver of the stagecoach was the owner of lots in Lida, and a depositor in the bank in Goldfield. He whipped his horses most of the thirty miles to get the news to Lida, and the news settled on the town like the March wind that brings hail.
Men began to look queer and snuff the air, as before a battle. They were not to be trifled with that day. A double duty confronted them. They had not forgotten their reverence for the open grave, but their eyes shifted quickly away to where the sage and sky met where might be some puff of dust to betray a fugitive bank robber.
The expreacher arrived late in the afternoon, He was tired, and so was the cayuse he was riding. He was a heavy man, fat from eating sour-belly and beans. His khaki trousers had been whipped clean by the brush he had squeezed through. His cheeks were flabby and hairy, his knuckles were skinned, and the loose soles on his worn-out boots flopped when he walked.
The men of Lida had been waiting for him since the stage-coach came in. That was two long hours ago years of suspense it seemed to them. A man of the desert, whose casual eye is his companion in danger, might have noticed the queer actions of the miners that peaceful May evening.
Horses, saddled and bridled, pranced nervously and snapped at the halters that bound them to tent pegs. Then there were wild-looking bronchos hitched to buckboards, that would rear back in their harness and plunge forward, hurryingly anxious to get away to the dust of the desert.
A man who plows his own field and never roams beyond his own boundary line would have been afraid had he looked into the faces of the miners, so grim they were, so resolute in restraint, so death-respecting, and death-dealing. All armed as they were, with notched rifles and revolvers, some with lighthearted mother-of-pearl adornment to make their work more palatable, still the expression on their faces outdid in threat the fact of their weapons.
The preacher dismounted at the saloon where the body of the dead woman lay. "Give me some beer," he demanded, and they gave him beer. "Now we'll take up the corpse," he an nounced, "and go to the graveyard and bury it."
It was a quarter of a mile up the hill to the grave. The woman was tenderly carried there on the shoulders of men who were quick on their feet and quick with their eye. She might have been a precious gem, such delicate care she had in being lowered into the open hole.
Hats were taken off. The preacher stood on the mound of loose dirt that was soon to cover her up. There was the serenity of peace in the poise of the miners. The hill and the canyon below were in shadow, and beyond the peaks of the Panamint were ablaze in amber coloring. What a strange picture it made ! Half a thousand men with heads bared and bowed over the grave of a whore. Half a thousand ruined men, waiting for revenge !
The preacher read a burial service, and spoke a simple word in defense of the faults that had been the ruin of her. Then he called on them to sing "Nearer my God to Thee, leading the hymn in a rich baritone. One by one those soul-hardened men joined in, and as they sang their faces relaxed and the anguish-wizened lines disappeared.
When they had finished, there was a great clearing of throats. The preacher, looking down solemnly on the grave, said : "Let us all offer a silent prayer, that her soul may take wing from these canyons and ranges, and on to the East where the dark clouds grow less, on to the King-Star whose brilliant aurora will cleanse and cure it from Earth's wandering wounds,"
The heads were bent again, and as the prayer went out, an uncanny silence crept over the grave, a silence that the sea makes, sometimes to be broken by the leap of a fish or the spout of a whale.
This silence was broken by a laugh a laugh that had the ring of hate, lust, selfish greed, and madness and a muddled articulation of oaths, and groans and epithets. Somewhere in the crowd a rifle spoke, and less than a quarter of a mile away the squaw man dropped into the brush to laugh no more. The ex-preacher raised his head and shouted, "Amen !"
They filled in the grave and tamped the loose soil around, that the coyotes might not burrow in and disturb her. The job was done without haste. As night shadows were gathering from the hills the miners walked away, not in the solemn way they had come, but with a quick, released step which led them to their saddle-horses and buckboards.
Like a charge of cavalry they were off ; just dashed into the darkness. The bank robbers were ahead with a twelve-hour start. Two days later the president and the cashier were caught.
They weren't killed, sad to say, but brought back and made to stand trial. Nevada had no banking laws then. All that was required was a sign on the door : "Bank open from ten till three." Depositors had no protection. Paid for with the stolen money, the trial was put off from time to time, and eventually thrown out of court.
The stranger had disappeared before the crash came, but soon afterwards he was heard from again. A desert editor, the newspaper said, had blown off his head with a sawed-off shotgun in a quarrel.
Lida was no more. Jackrabbits ran unhindered where the town had stood. The sage-brush began to grow over old and new graves alike, The hills lay pock-marked, pitted. The microbe, man, had gone somewhere to bore an-other hole. Time, with its charter of shifting sands, would fill the pits, and the afterglow of the early sixties would haze the hills in ether waves, and cover the spots with sage and shist.
The money-and-faith-robbed miners, I among them, scattered to new work. It was in Gold-field, shortly afterwards, that typhoid fever overtook me.
My doctor, who loved to needle himself with morphine, told me that I had had a narrow escape, and I believed him; judging from the trouble it was to learn to walk again. The Gold-field undertakers, too, were making inquiries about me, as to where I lived, and whether I had much money. Ah, they throve there in those days ! Five hundred dollars for a pine box. If the bereaved lived outside the state, and wanted the body, the lead casing around the coffin cost the price of a desert convoy.
By this time my wife had left me, and what money I had saved from the wreck in Lida went to pay doctor, druggist, and hospital. I had rheumatism, and limped around on a couple of canes. I had a great longing for the sea, and wanted to raise enough money to go back.
One of Tiffany's engineers examined a turquoise claim that I held, and approved it. Tiffany offered to buy on a bond sale, with a cash payment down of five thousand dollars. I was happy again, but not for long. Another crook crossed my trail, with falsified affidavits of previous ownership. That meant endless litigation. Tiffany wasn't buying a lawsuit, and my deal fell through.
I hobbled away to another camp, where I met the young man whom I had helped in Vancouver. He now assisted me back to strength, and sent me away with money in my pocket. I went straight to San Francisco, and feasted on Dungeness crabs the night of my arrival. I went to bed, and felt the comfort of the clean linen sheets, so different from the dirty-dusty sage tuck blankets of the desert. I went to sleep with that sigh that brings relaxation like that of a child after a hard cry.
I was suddenly awakened, it must have been about five in the morning. The walls came tumbling down upon me, and it seemed that I would choke from lime dust, and loose bricks.
The door leading to the stairs was warped, and I could not open it. For a moment a prayer for deliverance flashed through my mind; then the sailor in me rebelled, and took command. I fished a chair out of a pile of bricks, and drove it through the door.
I dressed in the street that morning with thousands of people of both sexes.
In the face of the widespread disaster of the earthquake, private misfortune dwindled and for my own sake I do not regret the experience, hard as it was, nor even the total loss of all my papers and the treasured, useless, invaluable souvenirs of a lifetime in which hitherto there had not been overmuch of love and sweetness.
My life, like that of so many others, was spared only by a miracle. After doing what I could, through the next awful hours, to help in the rescue work, I booked passage North by steamer.