Published November 15, 2013
Clarence Clapper's Capricious Caper
A Serialized Novella
By John Rose Putnam
Even though both my prior attempts at an unrepentant life of crime ended in dismal failure I have nonetheless decided that the only honorable thing to do is to try again. A man must follow his calling, as I so recently learned, and since it was only by the grace of God that I lived as long as I have therefore it is His will that I continue my nefarious acts. But this time I have devised a well thought out and foolproof scheme to insure my success.
Yes, this time the poor ignorant chumps will gladly give me their gold and by the time they discover how expertly I've pulled the wool over their eyes I'll already be a half a world away. And for the whole wonderful plan I have the Reverend Wilmot Thompson to thank, a man so decidedly unfit for his chosen profession that the good church leaders in the east must have shipped him west just to get the pathetic creature out of their hair. Remarkably, Thompson made a comfortable living simply by haranguing the residents of San Francisco with his perfectly dreadful street sermons and accepting the donations of the worthless, wretched sinners who foolishly believed that he genuinely possessed a secret conduit to God and could actually save their pitifully filthy souls in some miraculous way.
Idiots! All of them! Idiots!
Still, from the moment I saw him stammering away at the corner of Market and Battery Streets I knew I had found something real, something that I could sink my teeth into, copy, and then apply the good Reverend's techniques to make myself a fortune. I'd finally found my salvation. If that bumbling backwoods preacher could scrape together a living in irreverent San Francisco imagine what a brilliant thinker like me could do high in the mountains in a boomtown full of rubes, bumpkins and plowboys who everyday pulled bags of gold right from the earth.
And so, now clad in a pious, flat brimmed black hat, matching frock coat and humbly astride an ornery, odiferous mule, I rode down the steep trail from the peaks above and into the gold town of Richman's Bar, scrunched tightly between the river and the precipitous canyon walls, a place where enough wealth had been found recently to satiate even the ample lusts of King Midas.
A small, shabbily built log building with a steep cedar shake roof and a small canvas sign that announced it as the Miner's Place appeared ahead of me. It was the first reasonably solid looking establishment I'd yet seen as I hit town and was clearly a saloon, but, because my long ride under a blisteringly hot sun had left me as dry as the Humboldt Sink in August, I climbed from my smelly mule and walked through the plank door. I stopped just inside to let my eyes adjust to the dimness, as the only light filtered begrudgingly through two calico covered windows in the front of the building.
The high-pitched voice of a girl called out to me, "Welcome preacher. I don't normally get men of the cloth here."
She'd recognized my disguise at once, likely by the white preacher's collar I'd swiped from the Reverend Thompson. I fingered it nervously. I'd forgotten I had it on. Perhaps it was a mistake to come in here. From now on I'd have to be more careful.
"God's blessing on you, sister." I replied in my well-practiced holier-than-thou voice. "Could a weary traveler find refreshment after a long, hot ride?" I could see her now, a tiny woman not five feet tall and barely seventy pounds soaking wet, but very pretty for someone in a place so far removed from any trace of refinement, though the faded green calico dress she wore clashed terribly with the bright blue ribbons at the bottom of her plaited brown pigtails.
"We got warm beer and rye whiskey. What's your pleasure?" she said from behind a low bar made from a rough pine plank stretched across two beer kegs. To my left, along the sidewall, was a bench where three miners sat sipping that warm beer and staring at me with wary eyes, while across the room a man with an overgrown beard and holes worn through the soles of his low-heeled boots snored loudly on a similar bench. Two small cross-braced plank tables flanked by rough three legged stools sat on the dirt floor in the center of the room.
"A beer would be wonderful. God bless you, child," I said and was somewhat surprised when her eyebrows arched high on her forehead.
"I ain't no child, mister—or parson—or whatever you are. I got a husband mining downriver and a child of my own on the way," she said as she slowly poured the beer into a ceramic mug so as to keep the foaming head down to a minimum. Then she spun out from behind her makeshift bar and set the beer on top of the table closest to the rear. "Enjoy your drink, preacher," she said with a snap and hurried back from where she'd come.
"Thank you, my dear," I said politely; surprised she'd taken so much trouble to walk out here and serve me. I sat on a stool and found myself facing the other three beer drinkers, with all six of their beady, hawkish eyes glowering at me from gruff, grungy faces.
The closest one, a shriveled coot in a crumpled slouch hat and plaid shirt, seemed particularly obsessed with me, but suddenly turned his own beer mug bottoms up and drained it. "Bertha!" he yelled and waved the empty glass over his head. The barmaid scurried out to grab the cup then, when she'd retreated behind her plank bar to fill it, his eyes latched onto me again. "What kind of religion you here to peddle, preacher?" he rasped at last.
"Christ has many services that need to be done. I'm here only to serve Him, not to sell anything, my son," I answered with practiced ease.
"Your eyes must be bad, preacher. I'm old enough to be your daddy. But you ain't answered my question. Are you a bible thumping Baptist or one of them damn Mormons?"
I took a long draw from my beer, mostly to gain time to think. I'd prepared for this question but the old codger had come at me from a different angle and thrown me off my course a bit. "Oh, no sir," I said finally and put on my well-practiced look of humility. "I'm Methodist and newly ordained. We believe that our Christian mission involves service to humanity and I'm here to help where I can. I have nothing to sell."
"You ain't here to start no church?" he asked, skepticism smeared across his face.
"God's will be done, my friend, but a church was not my original mission," I parried, hoping to keep the old galoot at bay until I could finish my beer and escape the withering, disbelieving gaze of all these pathetic drunks. I downed what remained in my mug with one long final swallow, and rose to leave.
Bertha rounded her bar with a fresh beer for my antagonist in her hand. "If you need a room try the Empire Hotel down the road. It's the best place around," she said to me.
I dropped a small coin on the table and tipped my hat. "Bless you, ma'am," I said then turned and walked out the door, thankful to have escaped what could have become a grueling interrogation unscathed. But I still I had faith in my plan. Even the pious Reverend Thompson had his share of hecklers who jeered and hissed from the crowd; trying their best to shout down the poor pastor's artless and insipid sermons.
As I turned down the dusty street I immediately saw the Empire Hotel ahead. The only two story building in town, it sported a canvas roof that drooped down into a huge canvas sign that covered almost the whole front of the crude wood frame structure. As ramshackle as the hotel appeared, it was easy to see why Bertha regarded it as the finest establishment of its kind around. Along the side closest to me, a mid-level area off to the side of the other floors, I saw two glass windows. Apparently the hotel had the only ones in town, everywhere else along the street sat nothing but shacks of brush and sticks, tents, lean-tos and shanties plus two more log buildings each somewhat smaller even than the relatively puny Miner's Place.
I tied my smelly mule to a rail beside an even stinkier swayback mare, grabbed my bags, pushed open the door and immediately found myself in an ostentatiously outfitted barroom. Crimson calico adorned most of the walls and surrounded a mirror behind an oak bar. Jars of candied fruit, cigar cases, and cheap, tacky decanters filled with deviled eggs and pickles sat on shelves that flanked the mirror. In the center of the room, atop a lone table covered in a green cloth, was a deck of playing cards, a backgammon board and a number of trashy novels, and, like at the Miner's Place, two uncomfortable looking benches lined the walls.
The room was otherwise empty so I walked up a short flight of steps into what must be the parlor. Straw mats covered the floor. More of the crimson calico draped the windows as well as the fourteen-foot long sofa between them. A round table with a green top surrounded by six cane bottom chairs occupied the center of the room while against one wall stood an iron stove and next to it a rocking chair overflowing with the bulging frame of what must be the most humongous woman in the whole state of California, if not the world, who sat there in all her glory nursing a tiny infant from the most colossal breast I'd ever laid eyes on.
"Howdy, Reverend," she cried in a voice that boomed so loud I felt sure the hotel would collapse from the reverberations. Then she stood without a trace of modesty about her and, in a heavy pair of miner's boots, tromped to the wall beside the stove and laid the infant inside a cradle made from a champagne basket. It was only then that she covered her exposed breast with the red and green plaid shirt she wore over a black wool skirt, and turned back to face me.
I found myself completely at a loss as to how a genuine man of the cloth would, or should, respond when unexpectedly intruding on a mother in the act of nursing a child. Still her failure to cover up quickly was more in line with the type of women I preferred so I decided to gloss over the whole incident. "Oh, my humble apologies for barging in at such a delicate moment, ma'am," I said while flashing my well-practiced pious look.
"Yeah, I'll just bet you are," she answered with a wide grin. "Around here they call me Minnie. What else can I do for you," she added with a wink and her meaning was clear.
In spite of my normal predilections I knew had to mind my manners if I was to pull off my brilliantly conceived con job. "I am the Reverend Clarence Clapper and I was told you might have a room available where a humble man of God could find rest for as long as our Creator has in mind that I remain in your lovely town," I said, gazing devoutly skyward to punctuate the holiness of my mission.
"Yeah, I got a room, Parson, but ain't you here to start a church?" she asked.
"If that be His will, ma'am but it was not my original intent," I replied. It seemed that everyone I'd met in this town thought I was here to start a church. Well, let them think what they like. I had other ideas.
She pointed to another short flight of steps that rose up over the barroom below. "Second room on your left. There ain't no keys or locks but I reckon the Good Lord will protect you. Breakfast is at sunup and dinner at dusk." Then she heaved both hands under her monstrous breasts, "If there's something you need just look me up," she said with a devilish smile and a tempting chuckle.
I gulped, completely aware of her obvious intent and again totally unsure how a preacher should handle such a situation. "Thank you, ma'am," I mumbled to cover my rising discomfort then turned and walked up the short flight of stairs and into a narrow hallway with four rooms on each side. The second door on the left, made only of a flimsy wooden frame covered by a thin blue cloth, hung on its doorjamb by worn leather hinges. I pushed it open and walked inside. The eight by ten foot space was carpeted in more straw mats, with an oilcloth covered table against one wall and a solidly built bed, far too heavy for any one man to lift, in the middle of a floor so out of level that it was easily noticeable even in such a tiny area. Across the way a wood latticed window covered in more of the red calico adorned the outer wall.
I tossed my hat toward the table, flopped my two valises onto the bed, opened one and pulled out a fresh quart of rye whiskey, popped the cork with my teeth, spit it onto the bed and swilled down a long and justly deserved slug straight from the bottle. I pushed the bags out of the way and lay back against the headboard. It had been a long, hard journey and I was beat to a frazzle. After another long pull from the bottle I found the cork and replaced it, then dropped the whiskey to the floor, intent on getting as much rest as I could before sundown and the meal Minnie had promised.
I snapped awake to the shrill cries of crows that had rudely barged into my sleep from just outside the window of my room. Foolish, foul birds, I thought, good for nothing but squawking at each other from daylight till dark. I rolled out of bed and my foot hit the cold glass of a bottle. It clunked dully as it toppled over. Impulsively I reached down to grab it before too much of the precious liquid spilled, but luckily I found the cork had been stuck back into the neck. Fully three fingers worth of the whiskey swished around the bottom, and I swilled it down in one long pull, then tossed the empty bottle into the corner where it clanked into another left over from last night. I felt some better now. I'd needed the whiskey, the hair of the dog they say.
Still, deep inside my head a dull thud echoed again and again and my poor body ached all over, but that was probably from Minnie. I'd learned quickly why the beds were so sturdily built here for, in spite of her girth, she was a rough and tumble playmate. I liked women with spunk and she certainly filled the bill.
Hanging on the back of the door I found a clean, freshly ironed white shirt and a pair of black pants. It came to me then that today was Sunday. Minnie had been up early and as usual she'd gotten the clothes I needed to wear ready for me. As I got dressed I smiled. I looked forward to Sundays now, and not just because I could take a well deserved break from my everyday task of gaining the trust of the local hayseeds who mined along the river, but I actually enjoyed delivering my sermons at the impromptu services downstairs in Minnie's barroom. That these fools came and listened to me preach was astounding enough but it amazed me that they actually donated gold, like a tithe, as good Christians should. I made money every Sunday from these idiots. What a hoot.
In the parlor I found a breakfast of a choice slab of roast venison left over from last night's supper alongside potatoes, pan bread with plenty of churned butter and coffee all waiting for me on the table next to a full bottle of rye whiskey. Minnie's cooking was something to marvel over and I'd used it as a starting point for several of my finer Sunday talks. The people here were much too easy. All I had to do was mention food, gold, loose women or the incompetent new state government and I'd have them in the palm of my hand, all their grubby ears raptly tuned to my every word. Truly I say, this religion business is the most incredible scam in the world, and in my case it would soon become a veritable gold mine from God.
For now was the time to move in for the kill, the big pay out that I had worked so hard all summer long to set up. Today was the day I would lure the little rabbits into my trap with a most special sermon, and then tomorrow I would slam that trap shut. I relished the thought. Over and over again in my mind I'd added up the total amount of gold I could expect to reap from each of my marks and every time it came up to an even more incredible sum than it had before. By now it had grown inside my fertile imagination into a total far more massive than I could ever hope to tote away from this backwoods mountain camp far from any hint of civilization.
While I did realize I wouldn't gain nearly as much wealth in reality as I had in my flights of fancy I also knew that whatever fat pile of gold I did rake in from my well-planned little escapade would finally allow the whole world to be mine for the taking. I would soon make my way to the sophistication of New York City, or London, and perhaps even Paris. Starting from tomorrow and then forever more, come what may, I would be as much in charge of my own fate as any rich man anywhere in the world.
Just as I wolfed down the last of the well-buttered pan bread I heard the strains of Rock of Ages fire up on the battered piano Minnie had badgered some hapless mule skinner into hauling up here from Marysville on the overburdened back of some unfortunate beast. She told me she wanted music for her saloon on Saturday nights, but the only person anywhere around who could play the danged thing was Alabama Jenkins and he only knew three tunes, all of them hymns. I winced as the song progressed to its high note where, instead of anything resembling a musical tone, only a dull thud came from the horribly mistuned instrument. Still, when Minnie's powerful alto piped in on the next verse her booming voice covered most of the flaws caused both by the piano's physical defects and the fat, fumbling fingers of Alabama.
After a healthy belt of the rye whiskey I strode across the room. Beside the stairs that led down to the saloon I stopped and peered into a small, cracked mirror that hung on the wall. One look convinced me to pour water from the nearby pitcher into a bowl on the table underneath the mirror and scrub my face and gnarly black beard clean of the red rouge and white powder that Minnie used by the gallon. I took a minute or two to straighten my clerical collar and then I grabbed a comb that hung by a long piece of twine nailed to the wall and did what I could with the mop of brown hair on my head before I headed to the bar, ready to pluck my geese.
The second installment of Clarence Clapper's Capricious Caper will be published on December 15th.
John came west to attend the University of California. He's spent a lot of time digging into the gold rush and many of his stories take place back then. Not long ago he appeared in a segment for the Travel Channel about Henry Meiggs, the man who built San Francisco's famous Fisherman's Wharf.
John's characters are so real they'll talk to you. His first novel, Hangtown Creek, was published in 2011, and his new book, Into the Face of the Devil, pits a young man against a killer so evil he could pass for Satan. Visit his website for more.