Published November 15, 2013
Clarence Clapper's Capricious Caper
A Serialized Novella
By John Rose Putnam
When I reached the top of the stairs I saw her sitting in the rocker, nursing the brat, just like she done that first day I'd met her. She hummed softly as the chair swayed to and fro, but her eyes were locked onto the open window. She knew I'd stopped at the top of the stairs, she always knew when it was me, but she didn't turn or speak.
"The miners really liked today's sermon," I said.
I walked over to the table and poured myself a rye from the open bottle. As I picked up the glass I asked her, "Would you like to go to San Francisco with me?"
She didn't answer for what seemed like forever. I tossed down the whiskey in one gulp and put the glass back on the table.
"No," she said finally and I knew she meant it.
Suddenly I realized how much I wanted her to come, wanted her with me, no matter what. It was a strange feeling. I'd never wanted anyone in my life. But I knew better than to push her. She could be as stubborn as a stone. Instead I started up the steps to my room, then stopped and turned. She sat still now, the rocker not moving, her back to me.
"I wish you'd think it over," I said, knowing I couldn't tell her the truth. Come with me to Paris. We're going to be rich. I'll share it all with you. No, if she knew the truth she would never come. I started back up the steps.
"Clarence," she said.
"Yes," I answered hopefully, looking back over my shoulder.
"I'll think about it," she promised softly, still facing the window.
I felt like a heavy blacksmith's anvil had just been lifted from my back. "Good, we'll talk again later," I said.
I pushed open the door to my room. From below I could hear the noise of the bar. Today was Sunday; the only day of rest the men took, but most worked just as hard at swilling liquor and fighting as they did at anything. The high notes of Adolphus MacPhee could be clearly distinguished against the slow drawl of Crawfish Milligan as they continued to argue over money. It was the same every Sunday. Hell. I'd be doing them a favor by absconding with all their gold. Then the fools would have nothing to argue about—at least for a while.
From the table I grabbed a nearly full quart of rye, pried the cork free with my teeth, spit it onto the oilcloth covering the tabletop, took a strong slug straight from the bottle then flopped onto the bed. Already it had been a long day and it was only a little after noon.
Three days later I found myself only a few hours from Marysville, riding a pretty bay mare and leading my old mule, still as stinky as when I arrived at Richman's Bar but now loaded with a fortune in gold. Everything had gone better than I dreamed. The miners, fools that they are, showed up in droves Sunday afternoon, bearing food for my journey, the bay mare, and large piles of the proceeds of their hard work, all tucked neatly into leather bags with a paper that held the miner's name, that of his bank and the weight of his gold written neatly upon it. I'd just taken these backwoods numskulls for a little over two hundred pounds of pure gold. That came to more than enough to keep me eating high on the hog for the rest of my born days. Praise the Lord!
And in spite of my smug feeling of bravado at the miraculous way my whole underhanded scheme had turned out, I still had a tiny, almost imperceptible, hardly worth mentioning, nearly invisible, trifling, trivial, trite really, almost non existent, totally unimportant and surely worthless nagging regret that Minnie had not come with me. It certainly isn't that I wanted her, or, heaven help me, that I needed her. It's only that she'd become, well, comfortable. I would have even considered putting up with the insufferable wailing of that tiny brat she insisted on spending so much of her time and energy with just to have her around. She called it Marti, I think, or maybe Maude.
No matter. What's done is done.
But Monday, even though I'd gotten out of bed at the crack of dawn, eager to flee that God forsaken town just as quickly as I could with all the ill gotten loot I'd conned my way into, Minnie was gone, nowhere to be found. And believe you me; it ain't easy to overlook a woman that wide. But what really ate at my craw was that for the first time since I'd gotten to town no breakfast waited on the table for me. Bertha took pity and gave me a half empty jar of pickles and a half dozen deviled eggs for my morning repast but it just wasn't the same.
But then what difference does Minnie's disappearance really make to me. A woman is only a woman after all. With all the loot I'd just hoodwinked from the stupid miners of Richman's Bar I'd have my pick of the finest women in the world, beauties all, full of flair and talent, dressed to the nines in the latest fashion, sophisticated, personable and polite and oh so lovable. Why should I care what happened to a hugely overweight beast of a broad who wore heavy, mud splattered miners boots and could out arm wrestle any man I knew. Good riddance. I'm set for the good life. To hell with her, she had her chance. I asked her to come after all, didn't I? Yes; if memory serves I think I did.
Frankly I couldn't remember. No matter.
I'd ridden along the river for a while now and here the trail veered off from the water to cross a small rise, a short cut where the river made one of its many turns. The hill stood barren of trees save for several young scrub oaks that grew in a clump off to the right of the path just before a large rounded rock that rose from the very top of the hill. All at once a man dressed in a plaid shirt and crumpled slouch hat, a bandana over his face, pulled out from the trees right in front of me, holding what looked like an ancient Walker Colt that, from the amount of rust and grime caked about it, must have been buried in mud since the end of the Mexican War.
"Reach for the sky," the man yelled.
I recognized the voice right off as the drunken slur of Bert Bascom, Bertha's best customer and no friend of mine. "What do you mean by reach for the sky, Bert, are you drunk again?" I asked in my most condescending preachers tone.
"Don't give me none of your high mindedness," he yelled back, "just stick your hands in the air before I plug ya."
"I didn't know I needed plugging," I told him, all the while trying to understand his drunken gibberish. But I did raise my hands over my head, certain I'd rather not get shot.
"That's better," Bert went on. "Now pass that mule's lead over here."
"Why, I can't do that, Bert," I told him. "You made me stick my hands in the air lest I get plugged. So here they are and if I let them down to give you the rope, with you being so besotted like you are, there's no telling what will happen."
"I ain't besot . . ." He stuck his pistol hand up beside his head and gave his fading hairline a good scratch. " . . . Anyway, I ain't whatever you said I was, Preacher. Just gimme the lead to the dang mule."
"Don't call me your son, Goddamn it. I'm old enough to be your pa," he yelled.
"Now, now" I replied. "Must you take our Lord's name in vain?"
"The only vain one 'round here is you, you ignorant—"
"Damn it," he fumed, "I told ya not to call me that."
A loud click-clack came as he cocked the Colt. I'd thought it too grimy to work.
"I should've just blown your sorry ass out of the saddle to start with," he complained. "Instead I get roped into all this useless palavering." He took careful aim at the space between the brim of my black, flat topped preachers hat and my thin, narrow nose.
For the first time in my life I prayed and truly meant it. "Oh Lord, forgive this man for he ain't got a descent notion what he doeth."
"What the hell does doeth mean?" he asked instead of plugging me.
"It means you don't know what you're doing, you dumb jackass," I hollered back; now mad as all hell that he would dare make hash of my foolproof scheme to line my pockets. Having to put up with this kind of tomfoolery and frankly dangerous gunplay did me no good at all.
"Don't call me a jackass," he bellowed and took aim again at my precious bean.
"Fine," I barked, "here, Jackass," and I threw him the lead to my mule.
Bert reached for the hemp rope with the same hand that held the Walker Colt. But the drunken coot dropped the pistol while trying to grab the rope and because he tried to grab the Colt as it fell he missed the lead too and they both hit the ground. Then a loud war whoop come from the rock and a rider firing two Navy Colts, one in each hand with the reins to the biggest Morgan I'd ever seen stuck in her teeth, came tearing out looking so fierce that she could've chased the whole Comanche nation out of Texas all by herself. Bert Bascom took off like he'd seen the ghost of Bloody Mary herself coming after him, but I knew that it was no ghost, instead Minnie had come riding out of nowhere to save my worthless hide and just in the nick of time.
She stopped her horse and stuffed the two pistols into a flour sack tied to the saddle. "Hi Clarence," she called. "Did you miss me?"
I'll be danged. I missed her so much it stunned me. "Nah," I said, "not much."
She smiled as big as she was wide. "That's what I thought," she said and turned the Morgan in the direction I'd been heading. "Aren't we going to Marysville?"
I got a grip on the mule's lead again and started off.
"Hold on," she yelled and the Morgan lumbered toward the rock. "I got to get Myrtle."
"Myrtle?" I asked but she was out of earshot by now. I sat on the mare and waited. Then I heard an old familiar squawk. I reckoned the brat's name must be Myrtle instead of Mavis or Matilda. Then Minnie rode from behind the rock again and started down the trail ahead of me. She wore a canvas rucksack rigged up on a wood frame that looked like something a French trapper must have tossed out as useless. A hole on the bottom of each side had an itty-bitty leg wiggling out of it and the puny little head of Martha or Maude or whatever she called the damn brat stuck out the top. Still, I gave Stinky's rope a tug and soon rode up beside Minnie.
Then I saw smoke from a steamboat stoking up, getting ready to head downriver, just where I wanted to go. Marysville lay dead ahead. I'd planned to catch a boat from there to San Francisco and then hop a steamship to the east coast. As soon as that side-wheeler sailed out of the Golden Gate I'd be scot-free, and with all of my ill gotten loot. By the time the rubes in Richman's Bar realized what happened I'd already be in New York City or maybe even Paris.
"We need to hurry, Minnie. I want to catch that steamer," I told her, hoping she'd just go along nice and easy without any questions.
"But Clarence, don't you want to get all this gold into the bank before some other scoundrel tries to steal it?"
"Oh, Clarence, you're so silly. Of course you don't want the gold stolen. But I know why you really want to get to San Francisco so quick." She batted her big blue eyes at me and winked. "Tomorrow we can head downriver and then the next day we'll be married—"
"Married?" I squawked, sounding near like Minnie's brat.
"Yes, dear. I know you planned this whole trip just so your friend Reverend Thompson could marry us? Oh, Clarence, you're such a sweetheart to think about me like this. I'm so excited I don't know what to do."
I was so stunned I didn't know what to say. Could a woman who wanted to get married foil my perfect swindle? I started to protest. "Minnie, I—"
"Now don't you deny it, Clarence. I know how modest you can be."
"We're going to be so happy. Oh my, I don't have a thing to wear."
"We could go to Paris—"
"Now don't be silly. We can't afford to go to Paris for a dress. I'll get something in one of those fancy shops in San Francisco. Then we'll hustle back home. The members of your congregation need you. When you get back they want to build you a church, Clarence."
She looked me straight in the eyes. "Yes dear, they do," she said in the most square-shooting tone I'd ever heard her use. Then she grabbed hold of my arm. The brat on her back let out a gurgle and drooled all over herself. Minnie grinned as wide as the Pacific Ocean. "Ain't she sweet. We're going to have another one soon. You're going to be a daddy, Clarence."
"Me!" I hollered. And right then and there I knew I'd have to give up my life of crime. And why shouldn't I? It hadn't worked out so far and this preacher thing was a pretty darn good scam on its own. I seemed to have more talent for it anyhow. Besides, those ignorant rubes in Richman's Bar wanted to build me a church.
Idiots! All of them! Idiots!
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.