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Forty-one Thieves / A Tale of California By Angelo Hall Characters: 9472

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Old Man Palmer

Robert Palmer, tall, thin, bent with toil, had lived in California thirty years. In May, 1849, when the snow drifts were still deep in the ca?ons of the Sierras, he had crossed the mountains, past Donner Lake and the graves of the Donner party, through Emigrant's Gap, to the valley of the Sacramento. He was thirty-two years old at that time,-no mere youth, seeking treasure at the end of a rainbow. He was already a man of experience and settled habits, inured to hardship and adverse fortune. As a youth he had left his native hills of Connecticut, to sell clocks, first in the South and then in the lumber camps of Michigan. There, the business of Yankee pedlar having failed, he found himself stranded. His father was a prosperous farmer; but a stepmother ruled the household. So young Palmer hired out to a Michigan farmer, for he was one of those hardy New Englanders who ask no favors of fortune. Imagining a pretty frontier girl to be a sylvan goddess, with a Puritan's devotion he made love to her, only to be scorned for his modesty. But failure and disappointment served but to strengthen him, and he struck out for California.

He nearly perished on the way there, while crossing the deserts of Nevada. In Wyoming he had fallen into the hands of that brave true man, John Enos, then in his prime, who had guided Bonneville, Fremont and the Mormon pilgrims, and who,-living to the age of a hundred and four years,-saw the wilderness he had loved and explored for eighty years transformed to a proud empire. Enos had guided Fremont through Wyoming. It is rather too bad that Palmer could not have accompanied Fremont and Kit Carson when, in February, 1844, they crossed the snowy summit of the Sierras and descended through the deep drifts to Sutter's Fort and safety. That was four years before the discovery of gold in El Dorado County.

Palmer was not crazy for gold. Arrived in the Sacramento Valley, he spent three or four years at farming. Perhaps his Yankee shrewdness saw larger profits in hay and cattle than in washing gravel. But certainly his New England integrity and soberness of character were more in keeping with the spirit of the pioneer than with the spirit of the adventurer.

While reckless young men were swarming up the valleys of South, Middle and North Yuba, finding fabulous quantities of gold and squandering the same upon the Chinese harlots of Downieville, Robert Palmer was making hay while the sun shone, which was every day in the Sacramento Valley. But land titles were so uncertain that in 1853 he turned to mining,-at Jefferson, on the South Yuba. He prospered to such an extent that by 1859 he had sent $8,000 back to Connecticut to pay his debts; and he had laid by as much more. Frozen out of his claim by a water company-for without water a miner can do nothing-he sold out to the company in 1860, and went over to the Middle Yuba, where he bought a claim on Fillmore Hill, with a water ditch of its own.

Here Palmer lived and toiled for twenty years, washing the dirt and gravel of an ancient river-bed high up on the hill-top between Wolf Creek and the Middle Yuba. He rented water from his ditch, sometimes at the rate of two hundred and fifty dollars a month, to other miners. From the grass roots on the hillside some lucky fellows cleaned up $10,000 in a few days. For several years John Keeler and Will Cummins rented water from Palmer and helped the "old man" keep his ditch in repair.

The old man lived alone, industrious, and so economical as to excite the mirth or the pity of his rough neighbors. Some who heard that he had loaned $60,000 to a water company at 12 per cent. interest, regarded him contemptuously as a miser. How else explain his shabby clothes, his old rubber boots, that were out at the toes, his life of toil and self-denial? Palmer never gambled, nor caroused, nor spent money on women. He attended strictly to business, bringing to the bank at Moore's Flat from time to time gold dust of high grade, worth from $19 to $20 an ounce. And those who bought his gold marked how rough and torn were the old man's fingers, the nails broken and blackened and forced away from the flesh.

But Keeler and Cummins had seen through the rough exterior. They knew something of his charities. They had tasted his good cheer; for he kept a well-stocked larder. They had seen with amusement his family of pet cats seated at table with him, and each receiving its rations in due order, like so many children. Keeler told with glee about the old man's horse and mule, idly eating their heads off on the hillside. They had come to Palmer in payment of a debt, and although he had had a fair offer for the mule he had refused to sell, on the g

round that without the mule the horse would be lonesome.

Robert Palmer knew what it was to be lonesome. True, he employed a hired man or two occasionally, and when he cleaned up his sluices he employed several-and, let it be said, he paid good wages. There were neighbors, but with most of them he had little in common. The Woolsey boys, at the ranch in the bottom of the ca?on, whose widowed mother had come from St. Louis to marry old Sherwood, had grown up under his kindly eye. In early boyhood their active limbs had scaled the forbidding ledges of Fillmore Hill, and Robert Palmer had granted them permission to hunt on his claim.

One night in his cabin on the mountain top, when the gold dust from the last clean-up had not yet been disposed of, he was startled by a noise outside. He blew out the light and hid his little bag of treasure in the ashes of his forge. None too soon, for there was a summons at the door, and when he opened it he was confronted by three masked men. With drawn pistols they demanded his money. He said he had none. It was useless to resist, so he let them bind him hand and foot. Again they demanded his money. Again he said he had none. They knew better, and they threatened to burn him alive in his cabin. But Palmer was firm. Then they burnt his legs with a hot poker, and threatened to shoot him, as they might have done with impunity in that lonesome place. Still he was firm, so they set him on the hot stove and tortured him in that way. One of the party, more humane than the rest, protested against more extreme measures; so that, after searching the cabin, they gave up their enterprise, baffled by that indomitable man. Before leaving him one of the men asked:

"Mr. Palmer, do you know us?"

Realizing that such knowledge meant death, he replied:

"No, I don't know any of you."

And so they left him. The lone miner no doubt had suspicions concerning several of his worthless neighbors; but to the day of his death he kept such suspicions to himself.

Is it any wonder, living in that lawless country, that Robert Palmer became almost a recluse? But why should he work so? He was working unselfishly for others, as you will see when you read his will, for his twenty-nine nephews and nieces. As if a heap of double eagles would be of any particular use to relatives who had well-nigh forgotten him! No, they had not forgotten. For one nephew borrowed money, which was, however, repaid, and one niece secured five hundred dollars by sharp practice worse than robbery. Robert Palmer made the mistake that many an unselfish man has made, the mistake that insurance companies insist is wisdom: he labored to provide others with gold, as though gold were a substitute for thrift, prudence, and self-reliance. Never mind, the old fellow did nephews and nieces no harm, though he disappointed several who had depended upon him to lift them from poverty; for in the end his hard-earned money was lost. His only legacy was his example of thrift, unselfishness, and integrity. When men go about gathering riches for others, let them gather things of the spirit. The answer to this, perhaps, is that even such riches cannot be transmitted, that every soul must enrich itself. That is true; but a noble character is at least inspiring, and leaves the whole world richer.

In the case of one nephew, Robert Palmer found a man who loved him but needed none of his gold. This man was an astronomer, who, returning from a scientific expedition to Behring Strait in 1869, paid his uncle a visit. At that time this meant a trip of forty miles into the mountains by stage and on horseback from the line of the newly constructed railroad; for the narrow gauge from Colfax to Nevada City was not built until 1876. It was a happy day for Robert Palmer when his sister's son,-covered with dust,-scaled Fillmore Hill. Here was a meeting of two strong men, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxons, large of frame, spare, rugged, their fair skin tanned by the blazing sun of California.

What a glorious visit they had! And how they revelled in a thousand recollections of their New England home! For nine days the astronomer shared his uncle's cabin, a new one, built of sawn timbers and boards, and quite comfortable. Several days they worked together in the mine; and when at last the hour of parting came, Robert Palmer sent by his nephew a present to his grandnephews in Washington, the astronomer's three small sons. It was the gold mined in those nine days, some one hundred and thirty dollars in value. Thereafter the boys played miners and stage-robbers and wild West generally, with sheet gold in the guise of yellow envelopes hidden away between the leaves of books to represent gold mines.

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