Paymaster Otter

“Baker’s Park used to be a pretty quiet place with just a handful of summer visitors. All Indians.” – from Mining the Hard Rock in the Silverton San Juans by John Marshal and Zeke Zanoni.

Silverton had been very good to Marvin Otter since first he arrived hell bent to strike it rich during the first gold field circus of 1880. Baker’s Park promised wealth for all back then yet most went home hungry and a little rougher for the wear. Otter had arrived young with maybe a silver dollar in his pocket. He stayed on after the initial gold fever had subsided. He worked hard.

Healthy gold and silver strikes were abundant by the mid-80s and Silverton thrived. After a few short years, Marvin had a steady job, a house on the river, a stake up Minnie Gulch and a promising bank account. He was still poor but in some ledgers he was up-and-coming.

In addition, he was courting the youngest daughter of the richest man in Parrot City.

When it came to loyal employees and stable citizens Otter was beyond fault. Hadn’t he been promoted three times in three years and helped build the town’s first firehouse? Hadn’t he successfully negotiated agreements that allowed for whites to come into the high country in the spring and leave with silver in the fall? Didn’t he show up at the annual Fourth of July festivities with the dazzling Clara Spears, the daughter of the most prosperous trader in the San Juan, radiant on his arm?

Having skirted the sin crimes, fermented by gambling, booze and whores, Otter began his career as a mucker then graduated to hoistman in the Cornwall Mine near Eureka. He hated working underground. but continued to impress, setting policy, pace and work ethic in the accounting sector of Silverton’s Pardon Me Mining Company. It came as no surprise that the mine bosses chose Otter to perform the most trusted chore, carrying the monthly payroll over the mountain to Lake City.

The Pardon Me owned the Land of the Free Mine near White Cross and two other small digs in Cunningham Gulch. It also held paper on the Jingo Mine in Mineral County and the rich Butterfly-Terrible Mine in the San Miguel. Despite millions taken from the ground, miners were paid $6 per day for a 12-hour shift. The United Mine Workers Union was gaining strength, its members labeled as anarchists and socialists by the mine bosses who went to extraordinary lengths to discredit labor movements. Labor troubles were really management troubles but the rich man always dictates the sad history of the poor man.

Otter had saved his money but it was not enough to ask for the hand of the lovely Clara, join the brahmans in Parrot City and hop onboard the train to social mobility. He remained obsessed and beguiled, constantly trying to maneuver his way around financial shortcomings.

There were five of them, the trusted men who carried the payroll. The same man could not consistently carry the money each month due to robbers and highwaymen who freely roamed the mountain passes. Even the cargo was disguised, sometimes in whiskey barrels, other times as feed, still other times tucked under explosives bound for Hinsdale County mines. Often just two men brought it over.

Sometimes, in the interest of security, the payroll was switched over to mule in Howardsville and sent by way of Stony Pass to Creede and then back up over Slumgullion.

The law barely flexed its muscle in the mining camps much less the backcountry. Citizens of both Silverton and Lake City remembered the murder of the whistling postman, Ron Powers, on Bill Williams (Leroux) Pass in 1886 “when the Utes were jumpy” and the near-scalping of “The Red Finn”, Donald Enenga, and his family when they got caught in a snowstorm on Hunchback Pass the next year.

On a brisk October Thursday a well-armed Otter, with a $2500 payroll, would make the journey by horseback upriver to Animas Forks where he would take on a local gunman to ride shotgun with him over Cinnamon Pass to Lake City.

*****

After a dusty ride from Silverton Otter walked into the Frog Saloon (11,580 ft) in Animas Forks searching for Knute Johannsen, his approved hired gun for the trip. It was dusk and a small procession was just returning from the local graveyard.

“You looking for Knute?” laughed one man. “You’ll find those bones up yonder in the cemetery. That good-for-nothin bully finally got his just desserts.”

Shot twice once from the front and once from the back…murdered during a drunken argument over a soiled dove who had just arrived in town to ply her trade and expand her market. Knute was a mean sombitch with few friends. She had worked at Lacey’s Famous Avon Paradise in Eureka and had moved on to Animas Forks since men were said to bathe once a week and pay a working girl in silver.  Shootings were common. Prostitutes came and went. The only other potential guard Jake Mulholland was too drunk to walk, much less tote a shotgun up the Cinnamon.

The local chamber of commerce here played down the violence by ignoring it.. Animas Forks pretty much disappeared in 1891 only a few years before the 1893 Silver Crash tore the heart out of this mining country.

Fearing that the shooter and any number of derelicts in Animas Forks might recognize him from Silverton, Marvin made his way up Cinnamon Pass alone.

If all went well the 28-mile journey could be completed before the autumn darkness set in. The first stage of the pass was the most dangerous with slippery shale, loose rockslides and tight switchbacks. The mule inched and picked its way. The footing was often bad enough that Otter had to dismount and lead his mule in tougher terrain. To the south stood Whitecross Mountain and farther south Handies Peak. He would follow what was then called the Shelf Road to Sherman where he could change from mule to horse for the remainder of the trek to Lake City. He thought of Clara as he climbed toward the 12,600-foot pass. She had agreed to consider his marriage proposal that night when the Dodge City Cowboy Band had performed under the stars. He watched for signs that he was followed. He thought about the money he was carrying.

The alpine terrain unfolded with sharp cliffs, dull, soft dirt and jagged peaks caressing the faraway sky. It was idyllic, a paradise, a hell, a no-man’s land…a wonder to see.

Then without warning the mule stumbled tossing Otter and his cargo into the side of the mountain. He grabbed the saddlebags and the shotgun landing hard on his right ankle, twisting it savagely. Marvin knew he was in trouble when the swelling started. Looking back along the trail, he removed his boot and the ankle throbbed. He took a sip of rum from a bottle stashed in the bags, then a sip of water. If anyone were in pursuit, he would be an easy target. He leaned on the mule to stand and the cargo shifted, sending the mule over the side carrying his food and cold weather gear down into Grizzly Gulch.

Otter sat holding his ankle, the money and saddlebags. If anyone were to come along the trail, he would either rescue him or rob him. He buried the saddle bags somewhere deep in the rocks in a small cave prodded by landslides and scooped out by centuries of snow.

 All around him were precipitous peaks, dinosaur ridges and curious valleys perched in the icy air of October. Otter searched for fuel for a fire but there was not much. Just tiny purple flowers and mountain goats. When he does manage to start a small fire it strains to ashes. He thinks about the money and how he’d like to keep it. He drinks rum and thinks of the money. It’s paper. He laughs. “Hell, I could burn it and be warm for another hour.”

The clouds parted, displaying a myriad of stars. He had another swig of rum and another. His lone provision relieved the pain of the ankle.

“I could burn the money. What else can I do. I’m freezing.”

“What else could I do? I was freezing, said Otter aloud, practicing the words.

Then the temperature began to drop quickly and a light snow fell. He pulled his collar tight and lowered the brim of his hat.

“It’s the perfect explanation if I show up empty.”

More rum. The stars listened to his words. They didn’t go down any better in the heavens than there at the top of the planet. After adjusting the symmetry of the immediate geology, he fell asleep.

Marvin had dream after dream while a madman in the darkness up on the pass. He dreamed he had married Clara and that he was made president of the local bank. He dreamed they were rich. He saw himself as a poker player winning a big pot only to take a bullet and drop to the floor. He saw Clara smiling fondly at another man. He saw this mountain trail open up and suck him into the abyss.

****

When the cold morning light hit the top of the peaks Marvin awoke from his jagged bed possessed with the money he had stashed. He could dig it back up or leave it buried? He went over his story aloud confirming that his employers would believe him. Who would doubt the honorable Marvin Otter?

He burned the satchel that had once been full of bills and then saved it thinking it would make a fine exhibit A in a liar’s defense. He almost died up there on the pass. He had to burn the currency to survive. How could anyone doubt his story? How could anyone prove otherwise?

Marvin’s ankle throbbed. He reached for the painkiller and found the bottle empty, and then he reflected on his strange dreams. A rock rolled down the ledge and he heard someone approaching from the Lake City side. He raised his shotgun and waited to meet his morning company. Around the corner came the mail carrier on horseback making his way to Animas Forks from Sherman, where he had spent the night.

“They were expecting you last night,” said the mailman. “They was worried you fell off a cliff! Where’s your escort?”

Otter told him the story of Knute Johannsen, his decision to make the solo journey, the loss of the mule and the tragedy of broken bones and frigid weather. Then he told him he had burned the money to keep from freezing.

“Makes sense to me.” quipped the mail carrier. “Got plenty cold up here last night. Even a little fire could make a difference, heh.”

The mail carrier watched Otter curiously. Burned the money to stay warm did he? That’s a crock. This boy is hiding something but it ain’t my call. I’ll take him down to Sherman on the way back around. What fool will believe his story in Lake City?”

The carrier made the 10-mile round-trip and returned to the spot where Otter sat waiting. His ankle was turning all sort of colors but he  soon felt better up on the mailman’s horse.

The two men talked non-stop as they meandered down the mountain. They crossed Crazy Dog Creek and waded through last winter’s frozen drifts along Deception Ridge and into light rain that fell on the Hinsdale side, washing the pines and sending aspen leaves scurrying for their lives in the storm’s path.

By evening they were in Sherman where the mine bosses were waiting for the payroll to arrive. Otter was helped off the mail carrier’s horse, his ankle pronounced broken by a doctor from lake City. He told his story to three tongue-tied mine bosses who listened quietly until the ankle was set. While Marvin ate his first meal in over 30 hours, they talked in private.

“He burned the money and my ass chews gum!” said the foreman at the Land of the Free.

“He must be crazy if he thinks we’re buying that story,” agreed another mine official.

“I’m disappointed in Otter,” offered the owner of the Pardon Me, “but a thief is a thief.”

Then the Hinsdale sheriff arrived.

“Our main priority is the return of the payroll,” explained the three. “Then we will see about punishing Otter. First we put him under wraps, then we’ll have to deal with over 100 miners expecting their pay.”

The sheriff then arrested Otter at his dinner and tossed him in the town’s only private jail cell.

When he returned the four men discussed the best approach to recovering the funds.

“I believe there is still meat left on the bone here. We could beat the information out of him,” offered the sheriff. “The irony is that if he doesn’t talk we can’t prove he’s a liar. I think he’ll spill the beans when push comes to shove. I figure when the miners find out what went down his life won’t be worth a Confederate dollar anyway.”

That evening the sheriff and two deputies entered the tiny cell where Otter was confined.

“Otter, where is the money?” demanded one deputy, pushing Marvin across the cell into the rock wall.

“You had better come clean with us, boy. You’ve got no friends here to save you,” said the sheriff. “Was Knute Johannsen part of your scheme? Did you murder him too? Your story is bullshit. You must think we’re really stupid over here,” he added slapping Otter a good one to the side of his head.

“I told you,” whined Marvin, “I burned the money to keep from freezing. I even brought down the singed satchel to prove it! I didn’t steal the payroll!”

A blow to the head from on of the deputies knocked Otter to the ground.

“You’d better start telling the truth, Otter,” said the sheriff. “Once these miners find out they ain’t getting’ paid they’ll tear you to pieces. You ever seen a lynch mob at work? We couldn’t prevent unlawful violence even if we wanted to…”

But Otter stuck to his story, falling asleep in his blood.

*****

When the prisoner came to, he heard voices in the street outside his cell.

“We’ll get a confession out of this bastard. Burned the money my ass. He stole it up there on the Cinnamon. Let’s just hang the bastard and let the mine sort it out.”

Otter sat alone thinking.

“I’ve made it this far and I’m stickin’ to my story. These lawmen might beat me up but they can’t let a mob have me.”

He thought of the beautiful Clara sitting in her parlor in Parrot City. Surely she would hear of all this.

“I’m sticking to my story. They’ll never find the money and they’ll never prove me a liar. In time the money is as good as mine. I just have to keep my head until then, and after a year or so go back and dig it up.”

Early the next morning the officers returned telling Otter that the mob would be larger and angrier before the day was over.

“These people have hungry kids at home and no payday. You won’t last a minute after dark. There’s a proper hanging tree right out your window,” laughed a deputy. “The sheriff will fill out a report saying: An angry mob tonight hanged Marvin Otter of Silverton. My small contingent of peace officers was overwhelmed and could do nothing to prevent this tragic act from precipitating.

The sheriff returned and tried to reason with Otter.

“If you tell us the truth we’ll hide you over in Creede until the miners get paid, then you’ll get a fair trail.”

Otter stood firm with his story.

“I have been a loyal employee of the Pardon me Mine for many years. Why won’t someone believe me!”

“I give up,” said the sheriff.

It was decided that in the interest of recovering the loot Otter must stay alive.

The only answer was to move him to Silverton where the jail is more secure.

The next morning before daybreak three riders left Lake City for Silverton along the same route that Otter had taken several days earlier. Otter, now a prisoner, was tied to his horse. One deputy rode ahead while the other followed up from behind. They made their way through Sherman in the dark then into Grizzly Gulch by first light. Otter examined the cliffs searching for some mad escape route. He imagined getting away, digging up the money and heading for San Francisco where Clara could join him and…

Just at that moment a shot rang out echoing through the alpine valleys, one intrusion in all of the crystal peace that surrounded them. Otter slumped down on his horse with a bullet in the back. When he arrived in Silverton later that afternoon he was processed by the coroner and buried in the local potter’s field.

For years miners and others looked for the money while the Pardon Me Mine search took two months and covered a 3-mile radius of where Otter was rescued. The mule and the money lie covered in a fool’s grave, quietly waiting for another season to come and go, patiently waiting for nothing.

Clara married a banker from Gladstone the next summer.  They say it was quite the affair.

     – Uncle Pahgre       

Filed Under: Reflections on Disorder

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