|Home -> Other California History Books -> Down the Mother Lode -> Chapter 3|
|The Hanging of Charlie Price
"He goes to the well,
And he stands on the brink,
And stops for a spell
Jest to listen and think:
Let's see - well, that forty-foot grave wasn't his, sir,
that day, anyhow."
- Bret Harte.
Everywhere in the foothills of the Sierras there are still evidences of gold mining. High cliffs face the rivers, all that is left of hills torn down at the point of the powerful hydraulic nozzles, with great heaps of cobbles at their base which Mother Nature, even in seventy years has been unable to change or cover.
At the mouth of nearly every ravine there are countless little mounds which marked the end, or dump of the sluice-box in the placer mining. When the mound got the proper height the sluice was simply lengthened, like putting another joint onto a caterpillar - and there you were! The sluice-boxes have long since been moved away or rotted to mould but the little mounds remain, to be mansions for hustling colonies of small black ants.
The country, in various localities, is pitted with prospect holes, and the hills are pierced with drift tunnels and abandoned mines. Some of the prospect holes are mere grassy cups, others are very deep and partly filled with water.
Some of the most engrossing days of my childhood were spent in exploring these places with my two boy companions. We would fell an oak sapling across the mouth of the hole, tie a rope, usually my pony's lariat, to the tree and slide down it to explore the depths below. If we came to a side drift we would swing into it, light our candle-lanterns and go looking for gold. We were always sure that we should yet find a forgotten cache of gold - perhaps guarded by a lonely skeleton - but we never did!
About all we ever got out of it was snake-frights (naturally, sans alcoholic origin), until we were sure, the snakes were not rattlers; baby bats, which invariably tried to bite us; swallows' eggs, wet feet, and a good spanking if the family happened to find out what we had been up to.
I suppose that it really was a very dangerous pastime, for although sometimes the drift tunnel led us to a sunlit opening on the hillside, more often we reached a blind end and were forced to return to the main shaft and to "shin" up the rope, with from ten to forty feet of inky water waiting to catch us if we fell.
Or we went up the river to "swing the rocker" for old Ali Quong. He always pretended to drive us away, bellowing fiercely as soon as he caught sight of us, "Whassa malla you? Alle time you come see Ali Quong! Ketchem too-oo much tlouble for po-or old Chinaman" - the whole time with his wrinkled, brown face wreathed in smiles.
There we stayed the long summer afternoon, swinging the rocker while Quong shoveled in the pebbly dirt, watching him take the black sand, which held the gold, off the canvas with his little spade-like scoop, and panning it for him in the heavy iron pan, fascinated to see what we should find. Usually only a few small nuggets in a group of colors (flake gold), but once we found a good sized nugget which Quong gallantly gave me for a "Chinese New Year" gift. At dusk he sent us home, each with a bar of brown barley sugar - smelling to the blue of opium - which he fished out of one of his numerous jumpers with his long-fingered, sensitive hands.
They are dead, long ago - Ah Quong, old Sing, Shotgun-Chinaman - and gone to the blessed region of the Five Immortals, I know, but every true Californian will understand the regard the pioneer families had for these faithful Chinese servitors who took as much loving pride in the aristocratic and unblemished names of their "familees" as the white persons who bore them. Four generations of my family, old Sing lived to serve - but I must get on with my forty-niner's tale of the hanging of Charlie Price!
"Eh, mon, but the spring is here again," said Jim "Hutch" (Hutchinson) to Old Man Greeley.
"Is it so, now?" returned the little man, gazing off through the sunny, velvet air to a world which had been painted clean, new green. His shrewd, blue eyes returned to the ponderous Scotchman.
"And how came you to realize that it was spring?" he asked maliciously.
"How came you to lick Sandy McArthur-r-r?" Hutchinson came back at him. "Tell me that."
"Well, but whisper, man," said old Jimmie plaintively, "what else could a man be after doin'? Me boots were on, an' I could not run away an' climb a tree, so I used them on McArthur."
"Ye're a wild fightin' Irishman with no regard for the Sabbath," returned Jim Hutch, sternly. Now Greeley had a fear of what the dour old Scotchman might tell upon him. It would not pay to lose his Celtic temper.
"It was to church I was goin'." he growled. "'Twas why I was wearin' me red-topped high boots."
"Where was church that day, whatever? At the Widow Schmitt's?"
Jimmie squirmed. "You mentioned the beautiful spring, I mind," he countered deftly. Suddenly Jim Hutch grinned.
"I'll tell ye why. I was gaein' down frae Rattlesnake this afternoon an' Charlie Price an' his Leezie were out in his bit garden a-plowin'. Mon, ye could hear him for miles!"
It was even so. Old Charlie Price had decided that it was high time to put in his vegetable garden. He went out to the lean-to in his corral to inform Lizzie, the mare, of his intention. Lizzie was always the unwilling partner of these agricultural peregrinations, and, now she saw him approaching with the harness, she ran away with much snorting and scattering of sod.
"Hey, you, Liz," roared Charlie, "you goot-for-not'ing buckskin lummix, you com mit!" He flourished the halter rope at her. Lizzie flattened her ears, opened her mouth like a yawning snake, and ran at him. Old Charlie let out a whoop that brought the sheriff from Rattlesnake at full speed, and could be heard (so they say) all the way across the river to Wild Goose Flat, six miles away.
Even Lizzie, accustomed as she was to Charlie's mannerisms, was frankly startled and meekly allowed herself to be caught. She did not like to plow. She was a saddler and a pair of tugs and a collar bored her. With a cinch one could puff out in true wild-horse fashion while the latigo strap was being pulled, and afterward be fairly comfortable, but a slipping collar was neither off nor on. She shook herself impatiently and the collar slid down her neck to her ears.
"Hey!" bellowed Charlie, "you don't vear it so! You - " The mare stamped at a fly, bringing her hoof down on the old Dutchman's foot. His blood-curdling whoops and yells brought the sheriff in on a brilliant finale to a record-breaking run.
"What's the matter? Are you being murdered?"
"Who, I'm?" asked Charlie, absent-mindedly. He was nursing the injured member, wondering whether to kick at Lizzie with it, knowing full well that he stood a good chance of her kicking back again' but when she snapped viciously at the puffing sheriff he decided against it.
"You com' to see me?" he asked, in a bland, so-glad-you've-called tone.
"To see you! Why, I've come to save your life!"
"So? Dot's goot, but Lizzie undt me, ve ain't got so much time today. It's vegetables I sell in Rattlesnake undt ve go to plow, now."
"Well, you old fool, after this you can call in vain if anything happens to you. I'll never bother with you."
"Oh, vell, ven I got a little excitement I got to yell about it, ain't it?"
"Maybe you have - and after this you can, for all of me," and the wrathful sheriff departed. He was new in the community or he would have known that the plowing of Charlie Price and Lizzie was a regular event of each season, for which an audience gathered to lay bets for and against the probability of his dying of apoplexy before it was finished.
The plowing progressed in this manner:
Charlie put the point of the plow in the soft earth and roared at the motor-power. Lizzie started off at a nimble lope. The plow cut a pretty curve and flew out of the ground. Charlie reefed the reins at once, completely turning off the power. Then he put the reins about his neck, grasped the handles of the plow with both hands, and zoomed commands again at the champing power. "Power" jumped ahead. The reins nearly snapped old Charlie's head off, but effectually brought the mare to a standstill.
"Vait, you dunder-undt-blitzen apful peelings! You - you think dot plowing is not high-toned enough, yet - hey? Vell, I show you!"
He picked up a huge clod of soft dirt held it aloft in both hands and banged it down on Lizzie's back - whereupon she promptly ran away! She galloped furiously to the end of the field with the plow banging in scoops and leaps, and old Charlie, dangling on the end of the reins, flying along in seven-league jumps behind her. As soon as he caught his breath sufficiently for renewed directions, the cavalcade returned to the grandstand and operations were repeated.
Charlie had been a sailor before he came to California, and he plowed (?) each furrow with a collection of forceful admonitions, delivered in a voice of thunder, from a different language. It was all the same to Lizzie! She loathed plowing just as thoroughly in wildcat Spanish, as she did in Dutch or Cingalese, and she did not hesitate to prove it.
Jim Hutch and Jimmie Greeley drifted down to Rattlesnake at sundown and joined the laughter-weakened group perched upon Charlie's snake fence.
"The man grows more daft every year. 'Tis strange, what charms the Widow Schmitt." Old Jimmie merely growled in his beard. "Charlie, mon," he called, "the mare is warm and weary, and so's yoursel'. Come on to town for a bit."
Charlie stayed overlong at the miners' haunts in Rattlesnake and it was very late when he started back to his cabin, carrying in one limp, hot hand a jug which he guarded zealously from harm during his unsteady progress.
The men still sat over the card tables when the first daylight crept over the mountains. Jimmie Greeley was raking in a jackpot, grinning fiendishly at the dour Jim Hutch when they heard heavy, running feet outside. The door crashed open and a frightened, half-grown lad shouted:
"Where's the sheriff? Charlie Price has been hung!"
"On a tree near the Widow Schmitt's. I saw him. I know well the sailor coat that he wears - and his best red-topped boots. Where's the sheriff?"
"Over at Ah Quong's, the Chinee store on the edge of town." The boy ran off. Old Jim Hutch rose impressively to his feet.
"Friends, the man ye hae laughed at all day - is dead. The man ye hae always laughed at - and yet, WHO was it that lent ye gold when ye had none? Yea, the gold ye thought it not worth ye'r while to return. Who was ever ready to warm you at his bit fire in winter or to cool ye're whuskey-hot throat with water from his cool spring in summer?
"Who was it that brought his mare into his own kitchen when it snowed, and fed her the rice and beans he went without? Who was it that the Widow Schmitt waits for year after year, with half the ould fools in Placer dancin' after her?"
That was too much for old man Greeley.
"Because he was indifferent-like. When ye want a woman, run away f-r-r-om her and she'll run after."
"Why did ye na do it, then, Jeems?"
"Faith an' I did, but bein' ahl dressed up as I was in me coat, she couldn't see me suspenders to tell was I comin' or goin'!" Jim Hutch turned from him witheringly.
"Who was it staked ye for a new prospectin' trip, an' let his own mine go unworked? Who nursed ye when ye were lyin' seeck unto death, an' no one would come nigh on account of the smallpox scare? Old Charlie Price."
A boy whirled about to face the window, but not before one uncontrollable sob had sounded through the quiet room.
"Who was it," went on the old Scotchman gently, "found the wee bairn that was lost, last summer; that followed the Indians for thirty miles on his Leezie-mare and got the babe from out the wickiup of White Beaver? Charlie Price.
"Who came bringing it haeme laughing, on the saddle pommel while he sang to it songs from ower seven seas, which we did blush to hear, in a voice to be heard twa miles about? And 'twas only the bairn's mother who thought to thank him.
"Yea, and furthermore, when the incensed people would hae wipet out the while tribe of White Beaver, who dashed at the mob wi' the roars of a bull-bison forcin' them to hear that the squaw was crazed from the death of her own bit bairn, and but tryin' to comfort her sore heart? Who, I'm askin' ye?" and from each man's lips came the murmur like a response to a litany:
From the open door a cool dawn breeze blew in from the Sierras, pure forerunner to the new day. It whirled the heavy smoke plumes into forms of vanished ghosts, like the tortured figments of each man's conscience who had done, and "left undone" that which it was forever too late to amend.
The sheriff walked in.
"This boy says that old Charlie is gone." He stood with his broad hat off, running his fingers nervously through his hair. "Gentlemen - I - I must confess - I heard the poor man calling, but - "
"Mon, in an ancient book named 'Mr. Aesop, His Fables,' there was a tale of the lad who cried 'wolf.' Many there are here who have read it. Come, let us gae after poor Charlie."
In the first daylight they reached the tree with its gruesome burden.
"But - but," sputtered the keen-eyed little Irishman, "'Tis not Charlie at all! 'Tis but an effigy dressed in Charlie's clothes and hung at the Widow Schmitt's gate."
"As a warnin' to him frae some mutton-head lover of hers."
They ran as one man across the road to Charlie's cabin. It was empty.
"He was callin' 'Help'," said the round-eyed boy.
"Yes, we heard him," added the sheriff.
They had come up the road. They started back down the trail.
* * * * *
Charlie had got nearly home when he began to worry about a deep prospect hole near the trail known as "Rosenhammer's Shaft." He must be careful to avoid it. Suddenly his foot slipped on a pebble. He clutched unavailingly at a manzanita and rolled into a circle of inky blackness. Rosenhammer's Shaft! Now he was lost, indeed.
But, no. As he slid he came against a sturdy live-oak bush which he clutched, managing to stop his descent into the next world for the time being. He even, swung one leg over a wiry limb, and there he clung, puttering sailors' argot, considering his sins, and roaring for help in his best fortissimo tone.
The shaft was said to be a hundred feet deep. It was filled part way with oily water, and inhabited by snakes and monsters of the subterranean deeps. People had fallen in and drowned, and had been known never to rise again. The ghost of a Chinaman who had been murdered and flung down, was said to float up from its depths at night to range the earth, seeking the perpetrator of the fiendish deed.
Charlie wished that he had led a more blameless life that he had not so thoroughly beaten the Indian who had sold him a salted mine; that he had not made Lizzie plow; that, above all, he had married the Widow Schmitt when she had so plainly shown her liking for him.
Well, it did not matter much. He would fall in forty feet of water and they would never find him. He wished that he had drunk that which the jug contained. It was growing daylight. What was the day, then, to him? He would never live to see it. His arms were numb. He must soon let go and fall to his doom.
He heard voices but was too spent to call out. As a crowd of men came running over the hill, his arms were slipping - slipping. It was almost broad day.
He made one last, herculean effort to hold fast, turning his head over his shoulder to glance into the deathtrap below and - just as his repentant rescuers reached him, he gave a disgusted snort and fell - three feet to the bottom of the hole!
In the darkness he had safely passed the Rosenhammer shaft and had fallen into the six-feet-deep prospect hole of his own claim.
Two days later, Charlie married the Widow Schmitt