What would you do if you were forced to kill? Not in a moment of red-blooded thoughtless rage, but having been confronted with a truth that pushed you to coldly plot on another man's life. I would ask you to think on your answer while my story is told.
My father, Sam Beatty, led us from Baltimore to San Francisco in the summer of 1 873. The business we had in Baltimore, a farm supplies store, was doing well. He wanted more for us and so we boarded a train in June and arrived in Sacramento on the new trans-continental railroad a week later.
Life was tough in San Francisco and my mother missed the East terribly. We lived in a cheap Chinese
district of the city near the wharves, the streets full of refuse and rats.
In 1879, my father was shot by a drunken gambler. He clung to life on the bed in the back room of our cramped house for sixteen days before succumbing. His final rasping words to me, I recall even now with clarity, as if the words were mine.
"Find your mother's locket, Ben. Find it and fetch it back."
He died the following afternoon.
The man who shot him had torn my father's locket, complete with a likeness ofmy mother when she was sixteen, from his neck as he stumbled away from the surging curiosity of the crowd. He'd also grabbed the hundred dollars from the gaming table, but the loss of that locket hurt my father more than the bullet that ripped into his throat.
My mother's mind was made up. We would head back east. Within six weeks, myself, my sister Kate and my mother were aboard another creaking carriage heading into the Rockies.
Back in Baltimore, we rebuilt our lives. I went to Boston to study engineering. My mother, accustomed to retailing, purchased a small general store on the outskirts of the city, and dear Kate wed a lawyer and was mother to two personable children.
I initially continued the quest for my mother's locket, making some enquiries through a San Francisco
attorney, but I quietly laid it to one side as I got on with my life.
Over the next twenty years, my engineering work carried me all over our vast country, mostly on railroad and mining projects. My mother remarried, quickly divorced and died some eight years after my father, still heartbroken.
In 1906, I found myself in Rhyolite, a booming new town that had spread like an infection on the plain below the slopes of the Bullfrog Mountains in the state ofNevada. Five thousand hardy souls supported three large banks, three newspapers and three railroad services, all where only arid bush had existed twenty months before. Rhyolite was enjoying the good times.
I worked in offices on Golden Street and from my second-floor window, I could see the sprawl of this clinker-built town and the pockmarked hillsides covered with mine openings. Fifty saloons littered the dirt streets and on the rare occasions it rained, flash floods would bring both silt and stone down from the Bullfrogs and through the thoroughfares in a yellowy-green torrent. And the whole was framed by a burning blue sky and fanned by furnace winds.
Busy as I was with three mining projects in the area, I had made it my custom to frequent a saloon directly beneath my office for a whiskey before joining my wife at home. The saloon was not a rough establishment, though in a town where miners liked to let off steam, brawls were commonplace.
I was about to leave the saloon when I heard the man speak. He was to my right and his words leftthe whiskey tumbler frozen, half tilted, at my bottom lip.
"Now, this locket here, I won in five-draw in San Francisco twenty five years ago."
I dared not look over. When an associate ofmine walked in and sat on the stool to my right, I had no choice but to turn to face him.
Over his shoulder I saw a grizzled man talking to two of the saloon's working girls. About sixty, he had up on the palm of his hand, still cooing away to the girls about it, my mother's locket, the chain still around his heavily wrinkled neck. I would never have failed to recognize it.
With my father's plea in my head, I got up and left.
I sent abroad a few quiet enquiries the following day and learned all I needed to know. Charles Powell was fifty-nine years old and had been in town a month, working on the large Lesser Bullfrog mine, three miles from town and lodging across Golden Street. He still gambled and still drank too much - and was wanted in two states.
That evening, my wife sat writing letters to our friends in Boston. A poky, dimly lit cabin up near the main railroad station was home for us. Our third son had not yet arrived in 1906 but Sam and Arthur were growing fast. We had saved a fair amount after six months in Rhyolite.
"I've done all I can do here," I began. "I'd rather leave and head back to Boston."
She looked up, briefly contemplated my determined attitude and nodded her agreement. Two days later, the four of us were standing on the Central Pacific Railroad platform at Bakersfield. Rhyolite and Powell were gone from my life forever.
Though the readers of my story will show little patience and understanding of my actions, I would ask you to contemplate the dilemma of a true family man. Tom was born five months later.