A timid young man comes through, when it counts.
GIMPY JOHNYou never know how long a fellow’ll stick around, when he's just drifting; looking for a little yellow in his pan. My burro developed a limp and I hadn't had a bath since last spring, so Lone-Eagle Creek looked like a good place to stay 'til my dust ran out. I took care of my burro; got him a stall at the livery stable and a half bushel of corn. Then I headed to the Gold Nugget Saloon to get a room upstairs and a bath.
Some miners had a dig going right outside of town, but it looked like all the claims around the strike had been staked. No point in me thinking of joining them. Besides, I liked to work alone. I'd just have my bath, my good time and head back for the hills. I could see that, when the snow melts, nobody was going to be working here. That creek would be a raging torrent. The only ground to work during the spring would be upstream where the creek was cutting through a high bank and leaving its old bed behind. The miners had already started moving up there.
That bend in the creek, in times past, brought the water into an eddy before flowing into the river. Gold must have settled thick there for thousands of years. Must be fifty or sixty feet deep. The prospectors had cut a new channel for the creek to bypass the eddy. It now emptied directly into the Colorado. A few miners sank shafts all the way to bed-rock. At the bottom, they were below the river level. They had joined together and brought in a big pumping contraption, powered by the flow of the river. No way you’d get me down in that hole. I'd just take my burro and go to the hills to find gold high and dry. The three saloons were lively places at night; music playing and filled to overflow. Men stood three deep at the bar, drinking cheap liquor, smoking cheap cigars and some, sat at tables, played expensive poker. The fiddler saved the few tunes he knew that would get everyone's hands clapping for when the place needed to be livened up or a fight started. One evening, Mary Sue, pointed out a young fellow limping back and forth through the crowd, carrying liquor. She told me the miners called him Gimpy John. John’s father showed up a couple of years before, she told me, with John in tow. The boy seemed a delicate sort; what spirit he had, long since, beaten out by his father. A few months ago, a tree they were cutting, fell back on them. It killed John’s father, and left John with his injured leg. Fate had done him a favor, by making him an orphan, but Mary Sue knew he was ill equipped to take care of himself. She nursed him back to health, but he never recovered full use of his twisted leg. Her mothering instincts browbeat Sam, the saloon owner, into hiring John for odd jobs. A few men came in during the day and John’s work was not hard, but after dark that the crowds showed up, and then for four or five hours, he didn’t have a moment’s rest. John’s winced with every step. But, that didn’t stop the miners from cursing him for being slow. He kept his head down and carried on. Were it not for Grizzly George, John would have had an even harder time. George got his nickname for his temper. No one tangle with him. When he was around, no one taunted John either. One night, a gambler ordered rye whiskey, but John brought him bourbon. I heard a curse and looked up to see him throw the drink in John's face. Grizzly George came to his feet. "You yellow scum! Try that with a growed up man." The gambler, new to Lone-Eagle Creek, grabbed his pistol. Before he could lift it, a shot rang out. Big George sat back down. The stranger fell with a bullet hole in his forehead. Grizzly George never mentioned the incident, but John’s life became easier. Rowdies still cursed him and complained, and John still cringed in fear when they did, but no one laid a hand on Gimpy John. If a stranger showed inclination to bully the crippled boy, someone set him straight. John told me later, that grateful as he was for Grizzly George's support, he felt guilty about the dead gambler. He had seen men shot before, but this time, he felt it was his fault. It was about time for me to head back to the high country when I stepped out of the hotel one morning, and saw a bunch of the miners pointing up at the low clouds scudding before the wind. "Sky's looks plumb buttermilk," one of the diggers said. "Looks like rain fore the day’s out." "Nah," I said, "Heavy rains ain't due for another month; if we get any, it won't be much." "Ya might be right." He nodded.
"I was headin' back to the hills, but I'll stick around another day and see."
"Always a good reason not to work," Grizzly George said. "You fellers do whatever you want. I'm gettin’ my day's paydirt."
He turned toward the shaft and the other men followed. I made my way to the saloon to find another poker game.
Later, a man came in. “Must be rainin' someplace, that creek’s running bank full.” He had to hold the door against the wind.
The poker game broke up, and I walked across town to get a look. Sure enough, the creek was churnin' thick and fast with a lot of mud in it.
Grizzly George came up about noon and I told him how the creek looked, but he just brushed it off with a laugh. "Yep," he said, "it's always rainin' someplace; if you quit work ever time it rains you never get nothing done." "I reckon." I gave him my best twisted smirk. "I couldn't get me down in the hole with all that water around." "Don't s'pose you would." He slapped me on the shoulder. "But I don't s'pose you'd like to be down there any other time, would you?" I had to laugh too, because he was right. I wouldn't go down there in bright, sunshine, either. George and the other diggers grabbed a bit to eat and went back into the shafts. I went back to my poker game. John had little to do until evening. Mid-afternoon, I looked out the window and saw John sitting on a stump swinging his feet. I figured he was thinking about the trip he told me about, to visit his mother. He was saving every penny, and had almost eighty dollars. When it got to one hundred he was planning to take the supply wagon to Santa Fe, and get a stage coach to Missouri. There, he could get a train to Ohio where his mother lived. She’d help him find work, and he didn’t care what; anything would be better than this. While I was watching, he jumped to his feet and pointed toward the creek, then ran as best his twisted leg would allow, toward the saloon. I jumped up from my card game and rushed out to meet him. "The water! The water!" He pointed toward the creek. The muddy swirl poured toward the town and the open mine shafts. The dam upstream must be failing. The entire dam hadn't burst or there would be more water than we were seeing, but there was enough to flood the shafts. I ran toward the mines, but the miners above ground rushed ahead of me and began working the windlasses with all their might to bring the men up from below. One man, out of breath, stopped beside John and stared back at Big George’s shaft.
"They don't have a chance!" the man wailed. "There are too many down there to bring up in one trip. We'll never have time for a second."
John didn’t say a word. Swinging his bad leg beside him, he dashed down the hill, me and Saunders right behind. Several men came up beside us.
"Big George is still below."
The mud and water rose toward the open mines with terrible speed. It was scarcely ten yards from the windlass at the top of Big George's shaft when we reached it.
“George! Get on the platform!" John shouted down the shaft. He pulled the rope that held the platform and we watched the handles fly 'round and 'round as it descended. When it hit the bottom, John and Saunders grasped the handles.
"You ready, George?"
Someone answered, and they threw all their strength into it. I tried to replace John, but he would have none of it. I knew of wouldn’t have sped the process anyway. It seemed an endless time before the two men stepped off at the top. Big George was not there.
“Big George made us go first.” Both men uttered cries of alarm when they saw the water, now within feet of the opening.
Water poured faster; not only from the creek, but from new, unknown sources. Without a word, the miners stepped out of the way to let the handles spin one more time. When it hit bottom again, John would not be budged, so I pushed Saunders out of way to add my fresh strength to the lift. In a few moments, the platform was down again. The four of us laid our backs into the work, but the water was within inches when the men stepped out. Again, we lowered the platform as rapidly as possible, but the water was spilling over the edge.
We cranked like madmen, spinning the handle faster than I believed possible, but halfway up we heard a sound like thunder. The ground trembled and we saw a great wall of muddy water tearing out the trees as it plunged toward us.
"The dam’s burst!" Saunders shouted. We all dropped the handles and ran toward a small hill fifty yards away.
I thought all four had dropped the handles, but I was wrong. John still worked the windlass. The boy toiled on, despite the shouts from the crowd to join them. Lips and eyes closed tight, John tugged and turned. Slowly the platform inched upward. Then the weight slackened. The handle went round faster. The water in the shaft had reached the platform, taking Big George's weight off the rope. John could practically spin the handle now. The water poured in so fast that in half a minute the platform reached the surface, as Big George sprang off a huge wave struck.
Big George must have been a strong swimmer; I saw him on the surface as the flood swept them away. I never caught a glimpse of John, but a quarter mile downstream George struggled to shore and waved to let us know he was all right.
A few days later word reached us that the boy's body had washed up ten miles down the Colorado. Big George and the four men John had rescued went to bring him back. On the high ground, they buried Gimpy John and made a fine headstone.
I was so ashamed of myself, that I took my burro and headed out to another part of the mountains.
It was thirty years before my conscience forced me to face Lone-Eagle Creek again. An old man, I rode back to that valley. Having outlived my burro, I rode a horse, this time. It looked like the wrong place. The town was gone. The trees had grown back. No sign that a town had existed here. I did find the hill where I shamed myself by standing safe and dry while Gimpy John saved Big George. On that hill, a well carved but weathered stone declares:
HERE LIES GIMPY JOHN