Published November 15, 2013
Clarence Clapper's Capricious Caper
A Serialized Novella
By John Rose Putnam
The barroom was full. Extra benches and chairs had been brought in for the service but there were still plenty of men standing at the rear, most holding a beer mug in one hand and a whiskey glass in the other. As I walked toward the bar a number of miners called out to thank me for the work I'd done on their claims. There was Sidewinder Simpson and his partner Macintosh. I'd helped them clean the topsoil off their claim back in May. Now that they'd hit pay dirt rumor had it they were making $200 a day each. I smiled and nodded as I passed them.
"We're still pulling out color from the gulch, Preacher, thanks to your help in getting rid of the boulders that blocked us," yelled Isaac Arnold, oldest of four brothers who were now taking an astounding six to seven pounds of gold a day out of a gully upriver.
I reached the oak bar and swung around behind it just as Alabama brought the hymn to a close. The barroom settled down into that eerie, sanctimonious quiet one might find in a real church. I took the time to cast my gaze around the room. Bertha sat next to Minnie, the only two women in town, and next to her was the old man I'd first met in Bertha's saloon. I now knew him to be Bert Bascom. I'd helped him build a long wooden flume to bring water from a nearby creek to his claim. Now, using a rocker and a long tom in tandem, he washed out at least a pound of pure gold a day by himself. Or at least he said he did. Minnie told me he'd sold the claim the next day and now was spending the money in Bertha's bar. Needless to say, I hated his guts.
But that's not the way it was with pretty much everyone else here. There was hardly a man in town I hadn't helped in one way or another and now they would have their chance to pay me back, whether they wanted to or not. It was time to bait my trap. I stared out over my congregation, eyes aflame, ready to spout fire and brimstone onto these unrighteous sinners so as to save their souls and lighten their wallets. I threw my arms out wide. "Praise the Lord," I bellowed in the most pompous voice I could muster.
"Praise the lord," came the immediate echo from the flock.
"Do you believe in the word of God?" I continued.
"I believe," came the reply.
"Do you believe in the miracle of Christ?" I continued.
"I believe," came again.
"Do you believe in the power of the Holy Ghost?" I roared back.
"I believe," they shouted.
I paused, mostly for the effect, and waited until all eyes were locked on me.
"God said," I began, slowly dragging out God's name with the same pious drawl the Reverend Thompson always used, "that the wise man builds his house upon the rock," I punched out the last word with extra force then paused again to let the sanctimonious quiet settle back in around my listeners. All the while I swept the room with a hard, practiced gaze that spoke loudly of disdain, even derision, for those who would not accept the word of God. But in no way did I let my eyes reveal that the word of God, in this case, was whatever the hell I said it was. And believe you me, I meant what I was about to say to be taken as the gospel by every one of these once dirt poor former farm boys who now walked in such high cotton.
I calmly waited until the occasional coughs, wheezes and snorts quieted, and just as they did Alabama began to scratch at something under his wool shirt. I gave him a harrumph and glared over with my most disapproving snarl. After a couple of more strokes he got the message and looked around with a shamefaced grin on his grubby, wrinkled face. A muffled twitter filled the room and I noticed a handkerchief covering Minnie's mouth. Alabama scratched more than a flea bitten hound in summer, which irritated me no end, and Minnie, naturally, thought it hilarious. Well, I didn't.
But she muzzled her snickering and the room fell silent. Still, I held my tongue and let the quiet seep into the deepest pores of my audience. One beat, two beats and yet another, and then they were ready. "And this," I bellowed as I thrust my fist high overhead, a large golden nugget clamped between my thumb and middle finger and sprinkled with just enough quartz to give it a glorious sparkle in the light of the lamps, "is the rock that you've built your house upon." And again I shut my yapper while I slowly spun from one side of the room to the other so all here could get a good look at the glittering object I held in front of them.
Every eye followed my hand, locked tight onto the dazzling nugget, their lust for it practically dripping from their gaping mouths, greed plastered across their foolish faces like mud on a pig. They loved their gold. They wanted more, always more. The gold obsessed them. It spurred their long days of sweat then pierced their fitful sleep with dreams of wealth and splendor. And so they drank, bowing to the God of forgetfulness in order to get a little well deserved rest so when they woke they could dig some more. And they gambled when they drank that they might win a fortune and never have the need to dig again. But they always lost, and so they dug anew. And the biggest winners were always the whiskey peddlers and cardsharps.
I waited until the room again became deathly quiet. No one stirred. No one breathed. I pulled myself erect and with the same pious drawl as before I continued. "God, in His great wisdom, hid the gold in the rivers and ravines. And from the very beginning, when He created the heavens and the earth, it has waited here for you." I punched out the last word with special force, pointing the forefinger of my left hand around the room as I let my words—nay, I should say God's words—settle into the slow, lumbering minds of these ignorant yokels. "And God," I went on in the same way, "with His grand plan for all who follow His divine blessing, has brought you here to bring this rock," I pushed the nugget toward heaven again, "indestructible, eternal, the true rock of ages as it is, back into the Holy light of day so that He might rule over a more perfect world."
"Amen, preacher!" Adolphus MacPhee, the porcine and penurious owner of the local general store yelled out in a drunken slur. But he should know. He ruled Richman's Bar like a medieval lord over his fiefdom and had more of the damned gold than any of the miners did, religiously calculating the exact amount for each purchase and weighing the total down to the tiniest flake due him on an enormous balance beam scale. It will be my great pleasure to lighten his load considerably.
But I had need to tread lightly here and not let my disgust for the fat purveyor of picks and shovels show on my face. Like a good poker player I needed to keep my deeply buried emotions from giving away the value of the hand I had to play. I was a practiced card player, an accomplished liar, and yet each time the need to disguise my true feelings arose this same dark struggle over shrouding my iniquitous intentions broke out inside my soul with all the ferocity of a late night fight in Bertha's saloon.
Nevertheless I pulled myself erect in spite of my inner demons and forced my mind away from the portly peddler of pots and pans. I had a much more despicable villain in mind. Every good shakedown was basically a sucker's game and the best way to lure in a pigeon was to paint someone who was not here to defend himself as the devil incarnate. And I already had the ideal whipping boys in mind, the perfect goats for my pastoral fleecing, men who scalped both hard working miners as well as the tight fisted, avaricious MacPhee.
With passion dredged from the conflict between greed and my ever pestilent scruples raging inside my gut I waved the gleaming gold in my fingers back and forth and boomed out in my deep, resonant baritone, "And what happens to your rock of ages after all the sacrifice you've made to bring it from where God has put it and into to the light of His glorious sun. You've crossed the vast prairies, scaled the mighty Rockies and then the steep Sierra, and now you've climbed high into this remote wilderness, where you've moved boulders as big as an elephant, dug ditches through solid rock, and changed the very course of God's mighty rivers for no other end than this wonderful rock." And again I shook the gold over my head and shut my trap to let God's wisdom sink into the dense skulls of my moronic flock.
But this time, before they'd had a chance to truly ponder the significance of what I'd said I stormed back at them. "And what happens to this gold, your gold, that God has seen fit to put into your deserving hands?" I paused again, but only briefly, to listen to a murmur of discontent that already churned in the minds of my listeners. "What happens to this gift from God that you have toiled so long and hard to uncover, this blessing for which you have sacrificed so much? How long has it been since you've seen your children, your parents, your brothers and sisters? How long has it been since you slept in a soft, warm featherbed with your very own wife?"
Loud howls cracked the air. Every man leapt to his feet, fists pounding the sky. Frenzy and chaos filled the room and I knew I had just plucked my pigeons perfectly. I let them yell and hoot, a wretched look on my face that said how much I sympathized with their misery.
At last I put the nugget back into the pocket of my coat and raised both my arms, palms out, "Please," I begged, but not too loudly. I wanted them upset, shouting, angry, but I needed to act like a preacher should and at least plead for restraint. "Please, please, settle down now." I implored again, but only loud enough to add to the din. Then the ponderous MacPhee plopped his plump duff back down on a bench and three men near him followed his example.
This was my cue. I flung my arms wide and shouted over the bedlam. "Let us pray!" When I pulled my hands down to my chest, palms together and hung my head reverently, the rapacious ballyhoo instantly quieted and only the raspy crackle of Alabama's infernal scratching, pierced by an occasional cough, could be heard.
"Most generous Heavenly Father," I boomed in a deep, sonorous tone, "bless these humble supplicants who stand now before you, worn raw by endless toil, far from home and loved ones, who ask only that you forgive them their sins and bless the fruit of their labors. Save them, oh Lord, from the wolves that snap at their heels, waiting to rip apart any who stumble along life's narrow path. Spare them from the vultures who swoop low to carry off hard won gold from their pockets, just as the evil money changers purloined the purses of those who came to worship you in the beautiful temple of Jerusalem."
A buzz, more intense than a swarm of bees, filled the room even as I prayed. But this time I ignored it and continued, "Smite down these mercenary opportunists, oh Lord, who peddle putrid meat, third rate tools and pestilence packed wheat at prices that pry tears from a grown man's eyes."
The buzz became a roar. "Damn you, MacPhee," shouted Crawfish Milligan, who already had a running fight with the storekeeper because of the huge sum he owed Adolphus.
A chorus of venomous cries spewed from the crowd.
"He's been robbing everybody!" sang out Miles Murphy as he waved a fist in the air.
"MacPhee, you're a crook!" barked Patch Paterson, a piece of black cloth over the empty hole where his left eye had been before an Irishman in a Sacramento City cat house cut it out in a knife fight. After that Patch had stabbed the guy right through his liver. They say he died real slow and painful.
Then the clear, powerful tenor of big Bull Adams sang out above the din. "MacPhee, I'll rip your ears off," he cried, as he towered over everyone in the room.
"Lay a hand on me and you'll never buy so much as a grain of rice in my store again, you overgrown jackass" retorted the now red faced MacPhee.
"Jackass!" bellowed Adams. "I'll get you!" He pushed the men in front of him to the side and lunged after the shopkeeper, but Minnie was standing between him and Adolphus, her back to the charging Bull Adams, a beer mug in her hand. I cringed as one of the two most massive bodies in town collided with the other. Minnie's shrill shriek pierced the cacophony, beer flew high into the air but, true to her nature, she retained an iron grip on the mug itself as she tumbled into four miners in front of her who in turn toppled into four more.
In no time there was a huge squirming, wiggling, leg kicking, arm thrashing pile of bodies on the floor, moaning, wailing and shrieking, or at least Minnie shrieked, and at the top of her ever so powerful lungs. The rest of the room fell into stunned silence. Then, from somewhere near the rear and likely starting with Mumbling Max Moore, the stutterer, came the titter of a giggle, then another and another that all of a sudden ballooned into a howl of riotous laughter. I couldn't help but join in. It was the funniest thing I'd seen since I got to the gold country. But it was good that Minnie couldn't see me. I'd never hear the end of it if she did.
Yet in spite of the hilarious scene unfolding here I still had to at least act like a preacher so I stifled my mirth, raised my arms out wide and yelled, "Control yourselves, this is the house of the Lord," with all the honest sincerity I could fake.
And from the back of the crowd I heard Mumbling Max, "B-b-b-but it's a b-b-b-bar."
It was all I could do to keep from breaking out in more guffaws, but I knew better. "Damn you, Max." I cried. "Help Patch pull Minnie off Crawfish. And you, MacPhee, give Simpson and MacIntosh a hand and yank Bull off Bert and those two Arnold boys."
MacPhee stared daggers at me and didn't move.
"The Lord say's love thy neighbor, you viperous rattlesnake." I chided. And the lightning of heaven must have struck him silly because he immediately went over and grabbed one of Bull's tree trunk sized arms and yanked the man to his feet.
Miles Murphy and the other two Arnold boys had to give Max a hand getting Minnie off the floor. Her face a blood red scowl, eyes bulging, the veins on her neck pulsing with pent up rage, she spun toward the now erect Bull Adams. "Why you out of control rhinoceros," she screeched. "If you had any brains I'd beat them out of you." Then she looked down at the heavy, but empty, ceramic mug in her right hand. "You son of a bitch, you spilled my beer!" she screamed, and swung the tankard at Bull's head with all the fury she could muster.
But the big lummox easily reached up and grabbed her arm. Then, looking as contrite a ten year old boy who'd acted up in school, he said, 'I'm sorry, Minnie. I truly am. I'll get ya another one." He gently pried the mug from her tightly clutched fingers and, head hung low, shuffled off to the bar where Alabama was already pouring a replacement brew for Minnie from a big oak barrel just to my right.
A hush fell over the room, so thick you could scoop it with a soup ladle. Even Minnie was as quiet as a stone while Bull Adams picked up the full mug and trudged back to her with it, his abashed face a clear window to the misery of his soul. Always mindful of the women in town and careful not to offend them in any way, he was the first to step to their defense from harm, real or imagined. And his concern was greatly appreciated, especially by the petite Bertha who was often heard to say that the big ox could easily step on her and squash her flat like a bug on the floor.
When Bull offered the freshly filled mug to Minnie I could almost see the steam spouting from her ears, but as soon as she wrapped her fat fingers around it her face softened and she shook her head. "Ah, how can I stay mad at you, you big lunkhead?" And I was damn sure that behind those juicy jowls was a smile itching to bust out, and held in place only by the sheer pressure of Minnie's enormous will.
"Shucks, Minnie, I sure am sorry. I guess I got carried away." Bull mumbled.
"Yeah, I reckon you did," she said in the motherly way she had. "Now you go on and apologize to MacPhee. After all you was aiming on tearing off his ears."
"Reckon I was," he admitted as he looked over to the still red faced shopkeeper. "I 'spect I'm sorry MacPhee. I'll pay ya the money I owe ya. You can keep your ears."
The color drained from MacPhee's face faster than water from an up-ended mop pail. With a jerk his left hand flew up to his face, fingers caressing an earlobe. Just checking to make sure it really was still there, I figured. But MacPhee wasn't one to miss an opportunity to toot his own horn and the bumbling Bull Adams had just handed him a royal soapbox.
"Well, Bull" he began humbly enough, "I guess I can understand how you feel, how all of you feel really." And with that he turned to face the great majority of the miners, his hands way out in front of his body and ready to do half of his talking for him, constantly moving to illustrate each point he had to make. "I hope you all know that I have little or no control over the prices I'm forced to charge you good people for the products I carry. Because of our location up here so far from Marysville, without a trace of a wagon road, these mule team drivers and express men feel they have to get an arm and a leg for everything they bring in. I do my best to haggle for the lowest price possible." The hands went up, palms inward as if in desperation. He took a short pause, the talking hands folded as I had folded mine when I began to pray. "But there is little I can do," he added, his face gazing into heaven.
"Just look at the prices they charge you for nothing more than carrying your gold to a bank in Marysville on the backs of their now empty mules," he continued as one fist pounded the palm of the other hand. "It's worse than the money changers that Pastor Clapper just talked about. I do everything I can for you but it's all so very, very difficult." His hands came together in front of his chest, palms clasped; head low, a masterful performance.
Still, I had a flock to fleece and time was wasting. Besides, the actions of the graceless oaf, Bull, had set up the arrogant MacPhee perfectly, and the greedy storekeeper had just done my dirty work for me. How nice. How incredibly nice.
"Friends," I cried. "Friends, please. We are still in the house of the Lord." I shot Mumbling Max a fiery glance to hopefully circumvent another outlandish outburst from the stutterer, but Max was busy pushing into the crowd around MacPhee, as each and every one of the two-faced miners who had just called for his head on a platter suddenly wanted to make sure that the lecherous storekeeper knew they never thought he overpriced his overpriced goods, since it was widely rumored about town that the less he liked a man the more he charged him.
MacPhee's name rolled loudly off lip after lip, each man competing for the attention of the suddenly popular marketer of mercantile mumbo jumbo. No one paid me the least attention. I threw my arms out wide and at the top of my own particularly powerful pipes I shouted over the hubbub. "Oh God, blessed be Thy name!" I reined in my wide flung hands and clasped them in prayer. "Have mercy on these sinners, oh Lord, and deliver them from the evil traveling merchants who prey upon them. Set them in the path of the righteous, Lord, for the sake of the rock you have given them, the gold of your salvation."
By now only the slow drawl of Crawfish Milligan and the crisp, clipped nasal snorts of MacPhee could be heard as they again bickered at each other over Milligan's debt, each trying their damnedest to out shout the other. "Please, join me in reciting the miner's prayer," I said barely louder than a whisper and even as the two blowhards bickered nose to nose I started right in. "Our Father in heaven, blessed be your name from now till kingdom come. May you get your way on earth as you do in heaven." Everyone chimed in but MacPhee and Milligan, but in spite of their yowling I kept praying. "Give us this day our daily grub, and let us forgive those who trespass our claims and hang the rogues who jump them. Lead us not into temptation but deliver to us our beer, cause yours is the greatness, the might and the power, forever and ever. Amen."
Alabama clunked down on the first discordant notes of Rock of Ages and both MacPhee and Milligan suddenly realized they were the center of attention and shut their yapping jaws in mid-sentence, as every eye in the room locked on them as tight as a steel trap on beaver leg.
The miners at the back started to edge towards the bar, figuring the service was over, but I threw out my arms. "Hold on folks," I yelled over the pounding of the piano. "Alabama, wait a minute," I went on, but the clanking continued and I recalled how this sort of thing happened regular like on Sunday mornings. I had to figure old Alabama must be at least half deaf if not stone cold. "Alabama, shut up!' I hollered again, this time with all the mustard I could marshal.
Still Alabama kept at it, his back to the room, oblivious to anything but the hymn he was butchering. Then Bald Joe Bronson walked over and put a hand on Alabama's shoulder and shouted into his ear. The out of tune clanking stopped and Alabama wheeled around on his stool with a who me grin wide across his whiskered mug. I smirked back with the best semblance of a smile I could conjure up on such short notice.
"Friends," I called out, my arms open wide, inviting all into my poisonous web. "I have listened to your complaints with a heavy heart. I too suffer greatly from the price of things here. Though, as a poor preacher, I do not have the same problems with the express men who charge so much to carry gold to the banks down in the valley. But, due to circumstances beyond my control, perhaps I can offer some small token of help. I just found out that my superior, the Saintly Reverend Wilmot Thompson, wishes to meet with me as soon as possible. I leave tomorrow and will gladly take care of your banking when I reach Marysville. There will, of course, be no charge as I am only too happy to help."
A babble of shouts exploded from the congregation, every man waving and yelling. But my eyes locked on Minnie who stood as still as a statue, her jaw agape, face flushed, rage seething from her very pores as she glared fire at me. It suddenly became all too clear that I would have been well advised to tell her of my plans before I sprang it on her like I'd just done. The trouble was, I hadn't anticipated things would go so well and so I'd thought I had more time to soften her up. Win a few, lose a few, and I honestly hoped she'd understand, but I knew I needed to come up with a whale of a story to cover a derriere that suddenly seemed far too bare.
Then the sharp tenor of Pickax Pete sang out above the din, "Hooray for the preacher!"
The men shouted a huzzah so loud that the very building shook like a leaf in the wind. My eyes flew from man to man as all cheered and pumped their arms up and down. I'd hit it big time. No doubt about it. Soon I would be rolling in gold. And so I smiled as broadly as I ever had and nodded my acknowledgements to all the miners, and not a single one of the simple-minded suckers had the foggiest notion that they cheered the very man who was about to rob them blind.
Then, from the back, "P-p-p-pass the h-h-h-hat for the p-p-p-preacher."
"Hooray," came again from the congregation.
I could see the beat up slouch hat of Mumbling Max as it moved hand to hand from man to man, each one dropping golden nuggets inside as thanks for my inspirational message. This particular Sunday sermon had come as close to a full-blown donnybrook as any I'd held and the miners loved it. Already so much gold was in the hat that now it took one man using both hands to hold it up so another could dump his gold—now my gold—into it.
Finally the hat reached Bald Joe and he lugged it up to the bar. "Wonderful job you did today, Reverend. Best sermon I ever heard. Must be two pounds in here," he shouted over the hubbub.
Alabama had moved behind the bar where he dumped the nuggets into a flour sack and pushed it over to me. "Bar's open," he yelled and another roar spewed from the crowd.
I grabbed my gold and a tumbler of rye that Alabama poured for me, tossed the whiskey down in one swallow then looked around for Minnie. She'd gone. My anger flashed. Who needs her, I thought, but the memory of her fuming face hung in my mind like a painting from hell.
I forced the frightening image from my thoughts and walked out from behind the bar. A cloud of miners clustered around me, calling my name, slapping my back, and praising my sermon. Man after man promised to return in the afternoon with his whole cache of gold, for most nearly a months worth of hard toil, so that I could carry it to a Marysville bank. And I basked in the glory of their acclamation. The sermon had clearly entertained the rabble here, but only I knew it was the set up for what was likely the greatest flimflam ever in the mining country, and certainly a feat for which I could wax long about in the fine salons of Paris.
After accepting several drinks from members of my congregation and enjoying the fellowship of my flock for what would be the last time, I made my excuses and hurried up the stairs to the hotel's parlor in hopes of finding Minnie. Various stories, alibis and rationalizations about why I'd failed to mention to her my upcoming trip rolled through my mind, but somehow they all seemed nothing more than whitewash, like fish tales told by a drunken salt.
The third installment of Clarence Clapper's Capricious Caper will be published on January 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.