Author’s NoteThis is the first chapter of my novel, and it is based on a true story. There really was a Death Valley Scotty, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that the California that Scotty lived in is only a little over a hundred years out of date.
Today, if you’ve a mind, you can visit Scotty’s Castle. They say it’s a great place to ride to if you have a motorcycle. The Castle stands there in Grapevine Canyon much as it ever did, and a lot of people make the trip every year to pay homage to one of California’s great characters.
It’s always been a puzzle to me that with Hollywood just over the mountains there never was a movie made about Scotty. Now that we have the Coen Brothers, maybe there will be. I hope so.
CHAPTER ONEFurnace Creek, Death Valley, California
High Summer, 1905
A BEAUTIFULLY DESOLATE desert landscape shimmered in 130 degrees of heat. The ground down here was a cracked salt pan. To the west distant mountains rose up gray-purple. A little nearer, red bluffs, deeply fissured, eroded, guarded the way eastward.
A man with a white hat got down from his mule and wiped his face with his hand. He was looking intently at something in the brightness, blue eyes narrowed. When he pulled a red bandana up over his mouth and nose he looked like he was about to rob a train. But it was only to combat the stink.
The mule he had been riding was leading a second, loaded with gear. Both animals stood amiably in the dusty heat. They were apt to be a little stubborn at times, especially if they were asked to do something they didn’t think much of, but they were the right companions for this place, and hardier than any horse.
The man walked around the bodies of two horses lying dead in their traces and bloated by the heat. They had been pulling a four-wheel wagon. As he approached, a mangy black and white sheep dog crept out from the shadow of the wagon. The noise it made was pitiful. It seemed like the dog had survived by licking at the seepage from a water barrel warped by the heat. The dog might have been waiting here four or five days. It was now shaking and crazy with thirst, but its nature remained unthreatening and so he charmed it until it came to him.
“Hey, now, feller. How long you been here?” He unstoppered his canteen and gave the dog a drink of sweet water from his hand. “Who’s your master?”
The man finally steeled himself to look up at the body of the dead prospector. He was still sitting up there slouched over on the buckboard like the minute he had died. Only now he was attracting flies.
“Howdy. Weather’s a mite warm for this time of year, don’t you think?” As he searched the desiccated body the man talked to it as if it was still alive. It made things seem less spooky. “I guess your heart just give out. Happens to a lot of folks who try to get across here.”
He found the man’s dusty jacket, took out a well-worn blue notebook. In the front was a name, but not a whole lot besides.
“Pleased to meet you Mr. – Jeremiah Wilson,” he said, looking up at the discolored face. “Walter E. Scott’s the name, but folks call me Scotty, and you can too, if you’ve a mind.”
Scotty set the jacket aside. He’d go through the rest of the pockets when he’d done what he knew he should.
“Say, you wouldn’t have a cold beer on you? No? Least you could do for a fellow prospector. I should have asked them in Barstow if they had any grave-digging shovels.” He grinned, despite the bad air. “Don’t mind me. Just my idea of a little joke. I can see this is going to be one hell of a job.”
He unshipped a spade and a pick from the flank of one of his mules and began to bite laboriously into the rock-hard ground ...
A couple of hours later, with the grave dug and filled in again and Mr. Jeremiah Wilson decently sent to his reward, Scotty jabbed the pick and spade back into the ground with finality. He composed himself and addressed the mound of broken earth.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” he said. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. Amen.”
It was as much as he could recall.
The jacket wasn’t of a quality worth keeping. But one of its pockets might have been worth all the tea in China because it contained a little piece of rock – a very special little piece of rock.
Scotty took off his hat and mopped his brow. “Mr. Wilson, now where in the world did you find that?”
It was what they called ‘picture rock’. A vein of yellow glittered in it. Scotty turned the rock over this way and that, appreciating the value of what he had found. Then he clasped his hand around it, knowing that he had been well paid for his labor today. A plan was already forming in his mind, a plan to multiply that payment a thousand-fold.