SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER TWENTY
Nevada, 1870. Yes, it was a ghost town all right. Once, thanks to gold, it had been a rip-roaring hell-hole where men had money to burn and saloons, charging astronomical prices, had never closed. Storekeepers, barbers and others with goods or services to offer had made fortunes. Women had moved in, offering comforts to those men who would stop toiling for long enough to enjoy them. Along with the relatively durable structures, there had been a sprawl of distinctly temporary dwellings, in which hardy souls had alternately fried and frozen.
It hadn’t lasted long. All that remained of Sundown was a single street, barely a hundred yards long, lined with crumbling unpainted wooden buildings backed by long lots strewn with all kinds of trash. At the western end, timber construction gave way to what had been a jumble of tarpaper shacks, all now disintegrated. Some of the crude, hastily made signs had survived intact, while others dangled crookedly, one lying athwart the sidewalk, projecting into the street. Apart from the wind, chasing a Russian thistle along the street, the only noise was the clattering of doors flapping back and forth, the big one of the livery barn making a monotonous din.
Approaching from the east, Crazy Ben Magee moved into the street, riding one horse, leading another, the second animal bearing his modest stock of worldly goods. Heading straight for the stable, Ben dismounted, slammed the door shut and heaved a rock against it to keep it that way. He hated noise. He didn’t even like natural sounds, such as running water or bird song. In fact he hated a lot of things, the list getting longer as years passed. That might have been attributable to the brooding mindset acquired by a man who spent much time alone in remote places.
Perhaps it was the genius loci, or maybe the reason was that finally, at the age of sixty-two, Ben’s time had come. Whatever the cause, it was there, in the abandoned gold-mining town of Sundown that he had his great brainwave, a flash so intense that he later reckoned it must have been brought on by the heat of the summer afternoon. “There’s money in gold,” Ben soliloquized as he climbed back into his saddle, then, struck by his unconscious humour, he emitted a cackle of such pitch and volume that his horse bucked, nearly unseating him.
So swiftly were Ben’s thoughts moving that, even as he calmed the animal with one hand, he fumbled in his shirt pocket with the other, extracting his stock of cash. He counted it – fifty-one dollars. His only other monetary wealth was a handful of gold dust and a few nuggets, kept in a leather poke. He never included that in his reckoning. It was a memento of his only success in half a lifetime of prospecting, and had cost far more than it was worth.
Ben sat there under the blazing sun for twenty minutes, turning the money over and over in his hand. A lousy fifty-one dollars,” he muttered to himself. “I sure am sick an’ tired o’ bein’ poor. I’m goin’ to multiply this roll by one thousand an’ I’m goin’ to do it right here.”
It was a strange challenge for a man to set himself and seemingly a confirmation that Ben’s widespread reputation for mental instability was well founded. But he meant it. He was encouraged by his recollection of hearing an actor saying something about a man needing to take a certain tide in his affairs at the flood, if he wanted to make a fortune. Without moving an inch, he was consumed by the idea.
A month later, Ben appeared in Sourwater, the first sizable town east of Sundown. Within a day of his arrival, the change in his appearance was dramatic. He was bathed, presentably dressed and clean-shaven. The unkempt, matted grey hair had been disentangled and cut short. He looked respectable.
While getting himself groomed, Ben had forestalled any unwelcome speculation by explaining that his initial dishevelment was one result of his having spent some weeks in rough country. It wouldn’t have suited his purpose to have people thinking that he usually resembled a vagrant. To facilitate his scheme, he had decided to adopt a limp and, anxious to avoid accidentally lapsing from his role, he’d placed a small stone inside his left shoe, as a constant reminder.
After renting a room at the edge of town, Ben spent two more days acclimatising himself and blending in as an inconspicuous citizen. Then it was time to make a move. Leaving his lodgings on the fourth morning of his stay, he stood outside the local depot of the Calderwood Stage & Freight Company, the largest and most prestigious enterprise of its kind in those parts. Ben had established that the head office was in Saint Louis and that the Sourwater branch was one of many. According to the legend on the window, one Thomas Stoddart was in charge here. Ben entered, to find a young clerk in the outer office. A few well-chosen words sufficed to get the newcomer a private interview with the manager.
Ben got right down to business. His name was Benjamin Whitmore and he dealt in precious metals. He might be interested in arranging some freighting and naturally the Calderwood company had come to mind. Stoddart declared himself happy to oblige. Ben explained that this was merely an exploratory visit and that he would soon have concrete plans. Having ingratiated himself with the manager, a tall slim man of thirty-odd, Ben was about to go on to specifics, when he stretched out his left leg, sighed and began rubbing the knee. Stoddart looked sympathetic. “Troubles you, does it, Mr Whitmore?” he asked.
Ben smiled. “Just a little reminder of the war,” he said. “Were you involved too?”
Stoddart straightened in his chair, inflating his chest. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I had the honour to serve with General Lee.”
“Fine man, fine man,” Ben responded. “And did you also come across Old Stonewall?”
“No, sir. I was not so fortunate. Were you?”
“Yes,” said Ben promptly, continuing to exercise his hitherto dormant talent for mendacity. “As a matter of fact, I was very close to General Jackson when I got this wound. I guess I was too slow in dodging bullets.”
Stoddart hardly knew whether admiration or solicitousness was uppermost in his mind as he listened to this fine veteran. “It was a great thing for you to do at that time of life,” he said. “Must have been very strenuous for you.”
“It surely was,” Ben answered. “Keeping pace with those young fellows was harder than I’d expected. Anyway, I won’t bore you with war stories. We all have our share of them.” In fact, Ben had not been involved in the late conflict in any way, but the pretence was useful. He had been quite prepared to regale Stoddart with equally vague details of his service under Grant or Sherman, had the depot manager’s sympathies been with the Union side.
Ben made as though to leave, then appeared to be struck by a further thought. “Tell me,” he said, “your head office is in St. Louis, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Does that mean something to you?”
“Well, I’ll be over there in a few days. Maybe I’ll call on your people, since I might be doing business with you in other places. As a matter of interest, is Calderwood himself the head of your company?”
“No sir. He died three years ago. The new chief is Gordon T. Lightowler”
Ben shot upright in his chair. “Well, well,” he said, smiling broadly. “That’s a coincidence.”
“In what way?”
“Well, I was a great friend of Gordon Lightowler many years ago, though we lost touch a long time back. Surely there can’t be many men of that name. Do you know him personally?”
Stoddart shook his head. “I’ve never met him. Not yet anyway. Of course, he writes frequently to me and to all the other depot managers.”
“Then I’ll bet we can settle it right away,” said Ben, seemingly full of enthusiasm to renew his old acquaintanceship. He had in fact never heard of Lightowler, but would have reacted with equal heartiness to whichever name had turned up, so long as its bearer was not personally known to Stoddart. “Gordon used to have a way of signing his name. If you have a letter or something from him that you could show me, I’d know for sure. Nothing confidential, you understand. I don’t want to pry into your company affairs.”
Stoddart was delighted to help. “No problem at all, Mr Whitmore. I have a heap of his letters and notes right here.” He rose, turned to a cupboard and pulled out a folder. “These are all from Mr Lightowler,” he said, pushing the file across his desk.
Ben glanced at the first item and let out a little whoop. “That’s Gordon all right,” he laughed. “No mistaking it. This is great news. I’ll make sure I see him. Just do me one favour, will you? Don’t tell him. I’d like it to be a surprise.”
Stoddart was almost as pleased as his visitor. “Oh, I’ll keep quiet,” he chuckled.
Ben looked at the wall clock. “Well,” he said, “time’s passing. I’d better go.” He placed a hand on the desk and began to haul himself up. Suddenly, he gasped and clapped a hand to his chest, his face contorting in a grimace of pain.
Stoddart leaned forwards, anxious. “What’s wrong, Mr Whitmore?”
Ben gasped again. “It’s nothing much,” he gritted. “Just a little heart trouble. Comes and goes. Reckon I have the war to thank for that, too.”
“Anything I can do? We have a doctor here. I’ll be happy to fetch him.”
Ben waved a hand. “No need for that, but you could do one small thing, if you’d be so kind. I noticed in the store a couple of doors down that they keep Pope’s Herbal Heart Mixture. I always use it. Meant to get a bottle only this morning. If you wouldn’t mind?”
“Certainly.” Stoddart was already crossing his office. “Should I bring my young man in to keep an eye on you?”
Ben shook his head emphatically. “No thanks,” he said. “I’m used to this. Best if I just sit alone and quiet till you get the medicine, if you’re sure that’s all right?”
“Of course.” Stoddart raced off. He would have been amazed to see the change in his visitor, the instant the door closed. Ben leapt up, rounded the desk and began to rummage in the stationery cupboard. Within ten seconds, he found a stack of notepaper, printed with the company’s title and head office address and Lightowler’s name. He stuffed a dozen sheets of the paper into a coat pocket, also helping himself to a few plain envelopes, then delved into the folder on Stoddart’s desk, pulling from it one of Lightowler’s letters to the branch. Taken from well down the sheaf, it was eight months old and the subject matter seemed innocuous. Probably Stoddart would never notice its absence.
It was fortunate for Ben that he had moved quickly, as the manager was back within two minutes, bringing the medicine. Ben, still apparently in the throes of his attack, thanked him, uncorked the bottle and took a huge swig. It was revolting, but Ben swallowed bravely, then leaned back in his chair. “Ah, that’s better,” he said. “Works every time. I’m much obliged.”
Stoddart was keen to do something more for his ailing guest, but Ben assured him that the elixir was enough. Within five minutes, the former Confederate stalwart was on his way.
Ben took a leisurely midday meal to recover from his morning performance, then made his next call, this time to the Cattlemen’s Bank. He was prepared for a variation of his cameo with Stoddart, but that proved unnecessary. Still posing as Benjamin Whitmore, he asked to speak with the manager. Again he had to go through the outer office, this time limping behind a teller and passing between two desks, one occupied by a man writing in a ledger, the other unattended. On both surfaces were piles of letter-headed notepaper.
Ben stumbled, flung out his hands to steady himself and in doing so, pulled the heap of paper from the unoccupied desk to the floor. Apologising profusely, he picked up the scattered sheets, managing in the confusion to tuck a few into his pocket. That concluded his real business with the bank, though the histrionics of his assumed persona required him to ask about investment opportunities before excusing himself and leaving.
It was going well. Ben returned to his room and sat down to his next chore. This would take him the rest of the day and part of the following one. First, he spent three hours assiduously copying and recopying the signature of Gordon T. Lightowler, resting only when he was able to write it quickly six times in succession, each effort virtually indistinguishable from any other and near enough identical to the original.
Next came the letters. Neither the Calderwood organisation nor the Cattlemen’s Bank had yet made use of the recently invented typewriter, so Ben’s task was to reproduce Lightowler’s normal handwriting, which unlike his expansive signature was small and neat. On the odd occasions he had needed the craft, Ben had always been a tidy, careful writer and what his formal command of language lacked, his inventiveness made up. If he couldn’t phrase a point one way, he found another.
The storm of activity precluded lengthy sleep and Ben was at his work again early the following morning. By noon, he was satisfied. He had produced two letters, one from the Cattlemen’s Bank to himself, in his real name, the other an open one from the Calderwood company to any recipient.
The first letter acknowledged Mr Magee’s gold deposit, confirming the value as twenty-four thousand dollars. The manager would have been pleased to handle all of his new customer’s business, but fully understood that a man had to spread risk and noted that Mr Magee had similar deposits with several other banks. The second letter, signed Gordon T. Lightowler, introduced the bearer as Benjamin Whitmore, special representative of the Calderwood Stage & Freight Company. The firm was planning an expansion of its activities and Mr Whitmore was authorised to make the necessary arrangements, including substantial purchases of supplies of all kinds. Business contacts were respectfully requested to observe confidentiality. Invoices were to be sent to the head office unless Mr Whitmore decided to settle accounts locally.
There was of course no chance that Ben would pay on the spot, but it was very unlikely that anyone would refuse to do business with the nationally known Calderwood organisation. That was as good as money in the bank. Putting the two letters into envelopes, which he placed in his inside coat pocket, Ben went to the nearest saloon, using some of his dwindling funds to restore himself with rum, and to plan his next move, for which he would need to acquire yet another skill. He would also need to find a large mass of humanity, for where there were many people, some of them were sure to be credulous.
The services offered by the recently opened transcontinental railroad were custom-made for Ben’s scheme. Of course, travelling cost money, of which he now had very little, so he had to leave his horses and learn how to move by freight train, free of charge. It wasn’t easy, but he worked it out and embarked for the long journey to Chicago. On arrival there, he made his way to the outskirts of the city. There he found a farm where, having concocted a story about being attacked and robbed within minutes of arrival in the wicked metropolis, he got an offer of free accommodation in a barn.
Walking into the city each day, Ben spent over a week among the lower echelons of saloon life, often nursing a single beer for hours. He had to school himself to patience, but finally found a group of six adventurous young men, possessed of energy and gullibility in about equal measure. That was just what he wanted. The first evening, he entertained them with tales, some of them genuine, of his travels and adventures in the West. He also spent much of his remaining capital in what he considered a necessary display of open-handedness.
The group met again the following evening, when Ben used up almost all the rest of his funds in producing a simulation of drunkenness. At first warily, then with studiedly increasing abandon, he let it be known that after many years of prospecting he had at last struck it rich. For a man who didn’t normally talk much, Ben could be spellbinding when the occasion so demanded. As conversation and drink flowed, he explained that he had discovered a source of placer gold in Nevada, an area not usually associated with that sort of find.
One of the young fellows said he had heard that gold-mining was an expensive undertaking. Ben explained patiently that he was speaking of simple panning, not mining. That was the beauty of it. A man didn’t require much equipment. Of course, he needed supplies and they were costly in the West, transportation being what it was. Still, with a small stake, a man could get himself enough equipment and food to keep himself going until he struck pay dirt. Why, if it came to that, for a hundred dollars, Ben would be happy to make up a prospector’s pack for anybody who wished to cash in. But, he emphasised, a man had to remember that the light in Nevada was different, so it was necessary to persevere, allowing around a month of sifting before being able to identify gold. That had been Ben’s biggest problem at first.
Why was he telling them all this, one man, more sceptical than his friends, wanted to know. Well, why not, was Ben’s reply. He was already well past sixty and had more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes. No reason now for secrecy. His cache was safe. Would he help them? Sure. There was plenty more of the metal where his had come from. He had travelled east only to put some of his hoard into safekeeping. Didn’t like cities anyway. He was going back to live in his ghost town. If the young gentlemen wanted to have a go, they could arrive in Sundown with nothing but the stake he’d mentioned. He would see that they got all they needed.
The suspicious fellow wondered why Ben would bother to collect a hundred dollars each from them, seeing that he was so rich. After giving the man a long, withering look, Ben told him bluntly that it was no part of the Westerner’s code to support shiftless people. If a man wasn’t willing to buy his initial supplies, he wasn’t worth helping. True enough, Ben didn’t need the money. However, he knew of an orphanage in Denver that was always desperate for funds. He would see that the hundred-dollar investments went to that cause. It was little enough for him to do, considering what life had bestowed upon him.
Should they keep this to themselves, the young men wanted to know. Ben thought hard about that one. He liked his peace and quiet, he explained. Didn’t want to start a stampede. However, his companions were obviously men of the world – that went down well. They could use their undoubtedly sound judgement. Maybe it would do no harm to let a few close friends know.
Did Ben have any proof of his tale? Well, yes, but now he became extremely cautious, looking around repeatedly before his next move. In his right coat pocket, he had two identical drawstring bags. One contained most of his stock of genuine gold dust and some sizeable chunks of iron pyrite – fool’s gold. The other held a tiny quantity of the dust, plus a few real gold nuggets. He produced the first bag, shook out half the contents into his cupped hand, displayed them, then slipped them back into the bag, which he returned to his pocket.
Was it the real thing, the sceptic wanted to know. Ben gave the man another disgusted look and fished in his pocket again, this time bringing out the second bag. He hefted it in his hand for a moment, then, clearly coming to a decision, tossed it down among the beer glasses. “Take it, young feller,” he said. “Have it assayed if you like. You can keep it. Share it out if you want to. Like I said, there’s a good deal more. Oh, just a minute.” He opened the bag and removed the two largest nuggets. “I’ll keep these. They were the first ones I found, so you could say they have sentimental value. Think I’ll have ’em mounted on marble.”
It was a convincing effort. True, Ben had been obliged to part with a quarter of his dust and a few small nuggets, but he had kept most of his store. He wasn’t through yet. As he talked, he was fidgeting around, gradually easing an envelope almost out of a hip pocket. Suddenly, he stood up. “Well, boys,” he grinned, “if I don’t relieve myself, there’ll be an accident around here. Maybe you’d get me a beer. Be back in a minute.” As he rose, he made sure that the envelope dropped onto his chair seat, then he wandered off to the back of the saloon, weaving unsteadily.
The man who had been sitting to Ben’s right saw the envelope and jumped up, starting to call out, but the sceptical fellow silenced him with a finger to the lips. “Let’s see what’s in there, Dusty,” he said. “Open it.”
Dusty tossed the envelope to the doubter. “Aw, Tom,” he said. “You know I can’t read. You take it.”
Tom opened the envelope, extracting and unfolding a single sheet of paper. He read slowly, then whistled. “Well, well, well,” he said.
“Come on, Tom,” said one of the others. “What’s so interesting?”
“Just this,” said Tom. “Old Ben seems to be the real thing. This is a letter from the manager of the Cattlemen’s Bank in Sourwater, Nevada. Thanks Ben for his deposit of gold, value twenty-four thousand dollars. What’s more, it says they understand that Ben has other deposits like that with different banks, to spread his risk. Well, boys, I was suspicious of the old coot, but what with the gold and then this, I reckon he rings true.”
When Ben returned, the envelope had been replaced on his chair. He snatched it up, giving his companions a sharp look as he stuffed it back into his pocket. Picking up his refilled glass in a gesture that indicated he had dismissed the matter, he enjoyed the rest of the evening.
The following day, Ben gave his new friends directions for travel, telling them to allow him three weeks to get in supplies and, above all, to be very selective as to whom they informed of their plans. It was, Ben judged correctly, the most effective way to ensure that the news would spread. Out of any six men, one or two would be sure to blab, and those they blabbed to would blab further.
Ben’s next move was to revert to his Whitmore identity and go shopping. Even in big sprawling Chicago, the Calderwood name was well known and the fake letter from Gordon T. Lightowler was as good as cash. Only one place refused credit and Ben treated the owner with appropriate contempt. Not wanting to attract too much attention even in so big a city, he spread his purchasing widely, arranging transportation of the goods by train to the point nearest to Sundown. Freight-hopping again, he moved back along the line, stopping to make further purchases and delivery arrangements in Omaha, Cheyenne and Ogden. Finally satisfied, he returned to the railroad halt forty miles north of the ghost town, and waited.
Upon the arrival of his supplies, Ben, still using the Lightowler letter to get credit, hired ox-wagons to haul the goods to Sundown. He told the bemused drivers that a large party of surveyors would soon be arriving to assess the practicability of what he cagily described as industrial development in the area. He would not be more specific.
When the goods reached Sundown, Ben used the old general store as a warehouse and began the tedious work of breaking down the heaps of supplies into individual prospector’s packs. In each, he included an array of hardware, plus enough durable food to last an average eater a couple of months. When he was finished, the whole operation, from the first purchase in Chicago, had taken eighteen days. Then there was nothing for him to do but open a bottle of whiskey, light his old corn-cob pipe and do some more waiting.
The three weeks Ben had suggested to his companions in Chicago expired, then a further four days. It was becoming unnerving, but at last, over the rise to the east, he saw an open-topped wagon coming. An hour later, he was briefly reunited with the six eager young Chicagoans. They each paid their hundred dollars, took up their packs, listened to the simple directions to El Dorado and trundled off westwards.
For three days after that, nothing happened and Ben began to think his scheme had foundered. Then the real inflow began. For two weeks, each day saw its crop of potential millionaires. Most had the sense to bring pack animals, buckboards, or even handcarts. A few improvident souls overlooked such precautions and wound up trudging off, bent under impossible loads. Finally the flow dried up and for two days, no one appeared.
Ben was delighted. He’d been able to supply all the prospectors and he had a few packs left over. However, he judged it was time to leave before anyone got disappointed and came back. The miniature gold rush had brought six hundred and eighteen men and a party of five tough-looking women to Sundown. Each had paid Ben a hundred dollars, an excessive sum for what he had given in return. To the few who raised that point, he had explained that freight costs were high, and anyway, he had made it clear from the outset that he didn’t intend to help anybody seeking something for nothing.
Ben’s business ethics were custom-made. He was quite happy to fleece people who were in search of something for nothing, but he had no intention of duping honest businessmen. Had his scheme failed, he would have found a way of returning all he had bought. Since it had succeeded, he intended to pay his creditors. His ‘outlay’ amounted to eleven thousand one hundred dollars. His income from the six hundred and twenty-three prospectors was sixty-two thousand three hundred dollars.
Deducting expenditure from income, Ben found that he had a balance of fifty-one thousand two hundred dollars. Amazingly, he had kept his rash promise to himself, multiplying his original funds by one thousand and even having a two-hundred dollar excess. He was sitting and thinking about that surplus when he saw a lone man with a small bundle slung over his shoulder tramping towards Sundown. When he arrived in the town, the fellow was astonished to learn that, far from having to part with a hundred dollars, he was given twice that sum, plus a prospector’s pack, provided with a meal, then sent off westwards.
Ben left Sundown that evening and within ten days of starting at the railroad halt north of his temporary home, he had travelled east, this time as a paying passenger, settling accounts all the way to Chicago. That done, he returned west to collect his horses. He even paid retrospectively for his earlier free journeys, stumping up the full fares for his hobo outings.
A week later, Ben was back in the saddle, heading northwards, eighty miles from Sundown and making for the distant Snake River country. He looked as disreputable as before his great coup, though he had in his clothing and bedroll and on the packhorse gold, notes and high-value coins amounting to over fifty thousand dollars. He was riding along a tree-lined trail, when he heard a rustling ahead and two masked men, six-guns drawn, emerged from the trees.
“Okay, old-timer, let’s have your valuables,” said one, a youngster by the sound of his voice.
Ben hooted, his obvious derision almost convincing himself. “Valuables,” he chortled. “Oh, sure. I got valuables galore. I’m a loony millionaire. That’s why I travel like this. Why, I got better’n fifty thousand dollars on me right now.” He emitted one of his horse-frightening cackles.
The young fellow waggled his pistol menacingly. “Listen,” he snapped. “I said you’d better –”
“Stow it, Bob,” said the other, older man, swatting his companion’s pistol aside. “This here’s Crazy Ben Magee. Everybody knows he ain’t had more’n a grubstake since twenty year afore the war.” Turning to Ben, he waved him on. “All right, you old galoot,” he said. Get on your way an’ next time you’re held up, don’t be so sassy, or somebody might ventilate you just for practice.”
Ben moved off slowly, tipping his hat with thumb and forefinger. “Thank you, boys,” he said. “Better luck with your next customer.” The two bandits shuffled back into the trees as Ben departed. The last thing he heard was the older man, remonstrating with his junior. “A fine road agent you’ll make,” the man rasped. “I heard it’s hard to get blood from a stone, but you can take it from me, that’d be a cinch compared with gettin’ anythin’ worth havin’ from Ben Magee.”
* * *