When my feet are off the road
The Ballad of Sam McGresty
The sun sat high in the sky as 3 vultures flew wide circles over the figure in the arid scrubland below. Three days previously, his horse stumbled on loose ground coming down a slight grade and broke it's leg. It had been a good horse, so it was a sad day when he put it down. Mountains could be seen ahead and the man rested under a small tree with a blanket covering some lower branches, for a bit of shade. He would stay there until the heat died down, then continue his journey. He sat looking at the nearby elevations, wondering what lay there for his future.
In 1853, Angus McGresty left his home in Lanarkshire, Scotland and set sail for America. He arrived in Boston on a cold day with a determination to head west and farm some land. En-route, he met Sarah McLeod who was a schoolteacher. No farms were available in that area, after their marriage, which prompted them to head for somewhere else. There were a few homesteads left and they began farming 120 acres about a mile out of a town. Sarah bore a son and named him Samuel. For thirty years the family lived and cultivated the land. By 1885, both Angus and Sarah, who never bore another child, had passed awaythe McGresty clan were not known for long lives. Sarah had died of consumption, a few years after Angus. Sam sold the farm for a good price and decided to head west. Mounting his horse, he began his journey.
For the most part it was a quiet and peaceful ride. There were farms, towns and the occasional city. Being raised and educated (his mother taught him) on a farm was mostly an uneventful life. So crossing land where there were homesteads and farms seemed a natural thing to him. The small communities were welcoming and he would stay a week or so doing odd jobs and earn a bit of money to continue. Sam decided that he would not touch his savings except as a last resort. A large city saw him quickly depart, it was too much and did not sit on him right so he decided to avoid them where possible.
For the most part, a south-westerly direction was taken. Sam would amble along on his horse's back and sometimes he would sing a little song. He knew how to live off the land and had a Winchester rifle, used for hunting, by his saddle. There was plenty of game which he'd cook over a small fire in the evenings. One very clear day: from the top of a hill, in the far distance, Sam could see the tips of some mountains. Having never seen mountains before, it seemed a good idea to head in their direction, which he did over the following months.
The landscape began changing, from lush farmland to a region which was dry and arid, a territory which had not yet become a state so was a bit wild. He'd been riding for some days and when a small town was entered, his bones said take a rest. Booking into the only hotel, a building which had seen better days, he had a bath and a good meal. The food was not what you would call tasty, but it filled his stomach. After a short nap, a look at the town was needed and out he went onto the street.
Being raised on a farm does two things, it makes you very aware of things and puts muscle on your bones. Sam was no exception, quite stocky, about 5 feet 11 inches and not an ounce of fat on his body. So upon entering a saloon for a beer, he noticed characters not seen before in his life. Here was reality, instead of the few dime novels he'd read. Two guys at the bar fitted the description of desperadoes. A couple of poker games were going on at some tables, a man on an upright piano was honky-tonking his heart out and a few women doing what women do in saloons. In a corner was a man with dirty clothes and from his appearance was probably the town drunk. The two men at the bar were looking at the poor fellow, as Sam ordered his beer.
One of them tossed a coin on the floor in the direction of the drunk. The fellow got up, the best he could and staggered toward the coin. One of the men walked over as the guy bent over to pick up the coin, kicked him in the rump and he fell forward over it. Both the rough characters laughed at him and made some coarse remarks. Sam looked at others in the saloon and noticed they were afraid. He reckoned these two ruffians were the town bullies. Setting his beer down on the bar, Sam slowly walked over to the poor man and helped him to his feet, then moved him aside gently. Before the man who did the kicking could blink his eye, Sam landed a very solid punch in the middle of his face. The bully flew halfway across the bar room and slid up against a wall, very dazed. The other one pulled out his gun and stepped toward Sam.
Sam did not look at the man's face, but at his revolver. He cocked his head this way and that, bent over a little, like he was examining the Colt 44. He kept doing this for about 15 seconds with his face giving the impression that something was wrong with the gun. The gunman wasn't what you would call very bright, so not knowing what to make of this lifted his gun up to look at it. In an instant Sam grabbed his wrist and slid the barrel of the revolver into the man's mouth.
"Since you're so intent on pulling a trigger, now's your chance." Sam looked in the man's eyes, which were full of fear.
"Go on, pull the trigger," Sam then lifted the gun from his hand and pointed it at him. In the meantime, the other one was getting to his feet.
"Now, tell your friend to pick up that coin and give it to the man he kicked. Tell him!"
He did and the town drunk received the coin and sat down. Everyone else in the saloon looked at each other in pleasant amazement. Sam told the two men to go sit at an empty table with their bottle, which they did. The bullets were removed from the six shooter and handed to the barman by Sam. The empty gun was returned to the so called tough guy and Sam went back to the bar without saying a word. He continued to drink his beer, all the time watching the men through the mirror behind the bar. Since he only wanted one beer, he finished it and walked toward the door. It was getting dark outside so a window next to the door reflected enough that Sam could see the two men get up and one of them grabbed a chair.
By now Sam was getting just a little tired of these two morons. The chair was lifted and Sam quickly grabbed a nearby one and spinning, threw it at the man in such a way that a leg of the chair went straight into his mouth. The second one received another punch from Sam. He removed both their guns from the holsters, smashed them hard on the brass rail of the bar destroying each one. Then tossed the weapons out of the door. One by one, Sam picked the men up and slung them out of the saloon, the one who tried the chair trick landed with his face in a pile of horse dung. Sam returned to the hotel and went to bed.
Breakfast was pretty good in comparison to the previous evening's meal. It was fairly early in the morning and the plan was to change direction and aim for the mountains. He could have entered them before, but wanted see what lay beyond. Because it was so arid, Sam had two large canteens full of water and a larger bag made of hide to carry the same for the horse. His saddle bags contained some oats, his food plus heavier stuff in one and the bag of water in the other. All his clothing was in another bag: packed tightly, rolled around with his blanket and tied behind the saddle. He made sure the horse had drunk it's fill, as did he, before mounting up and riding out of town. The distance was about 90 miles and should take around 5 to 6 days to enter the smaller mountains. He had little idea what would happen then. Sam had been traveling for over 9 months and it was now summer.
Before setting out Sam bought a new Colt 45. He knew of the legendary Hugh Glass and reckoned that having a side arm might be a good idea, especially as the region would probably have Grizzly bears wandering around. With the early morning sun off to his right, he began the journey. When he first saw those mountains months ago, they were small peaks on the horizon. That had all changed now as you had to look up at them. The land was not quite a desert so a lot of bushes and small trees were present. While it looked flat, there were slight undulations to the ground as he rode along. The first day was fine and he covered about twenty-five miles.
So it went for the next 2 days, with the sun getting hotter. The morning of the third day, after breakfast, Sam noticed that the sand was a bit looser underfoot. The horse, whose name was Flori, had been raised from a colt by Sam. She was a solid, reliable mount and normally sure footed. However, the arid region was something new to both of them. It may have been a hole which had been recently covered with dirt. Flori had been moving a bit faster down a small slope and her foot went down, throwing Sam from the saddle. The horse fell forward and slightly to the right, her leg broke and she lay there in pain. Sam knew that there was nothing he could do.
Taking all she was carrying from her back, he managed to loosen the saddle enough to slide it off onto the ground. He stroked her head and pulled his 45 from the holster, all the time speaking gently to the mare. It was a struggle, but finally Sam pulled the trigger. He sat for a while, remembering the times he had ridden the faithful mount, then took a look around to see what could be made to carry as much as he was able. Not far away was a tree with a few good branches that would make a couple of poles. A small axe was in a saddle bag and it was used to chop the branches off and trim them to the same length.
After going through everything, the food and water bag for Flori were discarded. He filled his canteens from the water bag and looked up at the nearby mountains. Already the ground was rising, so Sam reckoned it would take two or three days to reach a gap between a couple of the peaks. He hoped there would be water there and began his slow walk. Traveling only in the morning and often in the dark of the evening and night, he probably managed about 10 miles a day. By the third day, only one canteen had water left in it. No river or stream was to be seen as he proceeded, uphill, between the two mountains.
Overhead, the sun was relentless. Sam had stopped on a rise and could see more mountains, with some trees and that meant water, but they were a good three days away. He slept for a while and upon waking looked off to the right a little and saw two deer about three hundred yards off. They were lowering their heads, then would lift them and went down again, could that be some water? He strapped his gun onto his waist, grabbed his canteen and, leaving everything else, headed toward the spot. The deer saw his movement and ran off. Shortly afterwards, he arrived at the location and there, before his eyes, was a small waterhole. Drinking his fill and having a nice soak, he put water into his canteen and returned to his belongings. Taking everything to the waterhole, he decided to rest a day and recover before continuing his journey.
The one item he had brought with him was a small telescope. With it, he sat peering at the land ahead. He also noticed that the water was a very small spring and ran downhill a little before evaporating in the hot sun. It was July and everything was baking in the heat. Rocks were almost too hot to touch and very little wildlife was about. His food was okay, some beans, beef jerky and a some vegetables were left so he knew that he could last for a few more days and that would have him in the trees. Another look see through the telescope in a different direction brought a surprise, he saw a small stream of smoke rising about 10 miles away.
The undulating ground of the foothills meant the distance was longer than thought so took a while and he noticed the smoke moved. As he crowned a low hill, the origin of the smoke was seen. A set of buildings and railroad station was seen. The movement of the smoke had been a locomotive moving toward the mountain range. Not big enough to be a town, the clachan consisted of a railroad station, small hotel with attached saloon, general store and assorted other buildings. Some large tents contained people.
The first thing Sam did was head for the livery stable to see about buying a horse. The owner had a few for sale, but there was one in a corral all by itself. It was a fine beast and alone because no one could break it. The owner, whose name was Thomas, had said they may just turn it loose. Sam offered to break the horse and pay the man 20 dollars for the use of the corral to do it inhe agreed, just to be rid of the thing. Sam sat on the fence and looked at the horse, he had broken horses before and knew what to do.
As he watched it, he noticed the tail was different. This was an Arabian stallion, no wonder others couldn't break it. How on earth it arrived here in this bleak outpost, was anybody's guess. Sam slowly got down from the fence into the corral. He sat down and began to hum a hymn he had learned from his mother many years before. The horse stomped and snorted, circling Sam. The song continued for nearly an hour and Sam slowly rose to his feet and gently walked to the gate, leaving the corral. After a meal and freshen up, he returned and repeated the whole thing again. this time with a rope in his hand. The horse neighed loudly and rose on it's hind legs. Sam turned his back on it and sat down again. By now several people were watching the proceedings.
The horse went around him a number of times, then stopped, lifting one of it's forelegs and scraping the ground with it. Sam spoke to it and lifted the rope a little. He stroked the rope and put it around his own neck, rising slowly from the ground smiling. The horse stood still and glared at him as he took one step toward it. Then Sam started humming the hymn again. Bit by bit he moved toward the animal. He would take a small step then stop for a few minutes. This went on for nearly thirty minutes. By then, Sam was next to the horse. He carefully removed the rope from his neck, all the time stroking it and reached his empty hand out and stroked the horse's neck. The rope was placed so slowly over the head of the beast that it seem to take an eternity. Without tightening the loop, Sam very gently moved it forward and the horse walked with him. He stopped, removed the rope, went in front of the horse, breathed into it's nostrils and turned to walk away to the gate. The horse followed him. Once outside the gate, Sam leaned forward a little and the animal lowered it's head and actually nuzzled Sam. The next day, it was saddled and ridden with hardly any fuss. Sam had a new horse.
Staying in the small hamlet for a few days was good and restful. Also, Sam asked questions about the mountains and what was in them. He decided to do something which was completely new to him, ride the train. He named the horse Robbie, after Robert the Bruce, and for a few dollars it could ride in a car on the train, along with a couple of other mounts. The man at the ticket window had said it would take nearly two days to reach a large town deep in the mountains, where it connected with another railroad. Sam just sat in wonder looking at the majestic peaks, with the increasing foliage, as the wheels clicked along.
Early on the second day, the locomotive had to stop for fuel and water. Sam got out of the train, along with others, to stretch his legs a little. There were some other buildings, sitting back a ways, which seemed to be abandoned. Upon asking why, one of the rail hands said there used to be a gold mine some miles back in the mountains, but it had closed down. There were other structures, one had a couple of strange old locomotives in, along with all kinds of stuff stacked against the wall and in boxes. He noticed the track for the mine was narrower than the railroad he had been riding on. His curiosity got the better of him and Robbie was led out of the horse car. Sam just had to see what was along that little set of tracks, leading off into the distance.
After stocking up on food and water, which was placed on a docile mule that Sam bought, he rode along next to the rails into the mountains. The terrain was quite rough, but the horse handled it as well as the mule. Sure footedness is one of the characteristics of Arabian horses and Robbie was no exception. Due to the slow going, camp for the first night was made within seven hours. It had been a tough ride and both the animals and Sam needed the rest. After eating, all the food was strung up a tree. Sam rolled out his blanket, laid down and was sound asleep under the stars within a few minutes.
The next day was nothing special, just the slow plodding along until mid afternoon. He had stopped, between two mountains, at a small river. The bridge was quite a height above it, not something a horse or mule could cross. Sam had to backtrack a ways and slowly descend to the level of the water. Once there an old trail was present so he rode along it to the stream, getting across was another matter. The water was running very fast, a lot of it white because of the rocks and ground underneath. He would have to go downstream to see if there was a way to cross the raging torrent. With the telescope, he could see the water widen out a ways, calming down. The terrain looked easy enough to follow. It took about an hour to reach a spot where the river was shallower and he could cross. As for his animals, the mule would probably be okay, but the horse he wasn't sure of.
A bit further up, the water was even more shallow and that looked like a good place to cross. Sam began to move forward and then froze. He muttered an obscene expletive under his breath. Coming out of the trees on the right were two Grizzly bears. A male and female. It must still be breeding season and the wind was not in his favor. His 45 was hanging over the saddle horn and he slowly reached for it. The two bears looked straight at him. They stood for a long time, staring at the three creatures before their eyes. The mule behind, for some strange reason wasn't that much bothered. The horse, on the other hand, stiffened and Sam stroked it's neck gently. After a few minutes, the male grizzly, turned slightly toward them. It's nose was high, smelling these interlopers on his territory. Then, it turned away and both bears proceeded to drink some water, cross the stream and continue into the woods, exactly where Sam had wanted to go.
A reappraisal of the route in was needed, so Sam figured to cross where they were and go back up the stream then turn into the woods to avoid the very steep section where the bridge was. He just hoped that gravity would influence the bears to head downhill rather than up. It took a few hours to reach the track, where they stopped for the night. The wind had changed direction to their favor, so he knew the horse and mule would smell any threat during the darkness. Making sure all the food was well wrapped and as high up a tree as possible, he made his bed and slept.
The morning was bright and warm when Sam arose. He made himself some breakfast, gave the horse and mule some oats after which they grazed on some nearby grass. The track looked different once in the wooded mountains. it was overgrown with weeds and covered with dirt and grass so only the top of the rails were seen stretching out into the distance. He packed up the animals about an hour later and set out along the narrow gauge railroad.
The journey was simple, with the track undulating and curving over the land. Just before a large curve around the side of the mountain, there was a siding. Next to it lay a small, abandoned, lumber camp. On the siding were two flat cars, one had some cut wood on its deck. A small cabin was present, apparently for the housing of one man. Nearby was a structure with a collapsed roof under which was a single saw machine, powered by a small steam engine next to it. Sam wondered why it was such a tiny operation. He was there for a short time and had a bite to eat before carrying on with the journey.
While riding enroute, he was enthralled by the mountains. Sometimes he would stop and just look at their grandeur. They made him feel very small, even humbled by their majesty. Often there were deer, a few distant black bears and in the sky, some eagles looking for their dinner. He was all alone and the beasts seemed to pay him no mind. He reckoned that man had not been around this area for some years, so the animals were not afraid of him. It all gave him a good feeling and he stopped at one point to thank God, in his Presbyterian manner.
The mountain rose above him into the clouds, which seemed to be descending ahead of him. At first it was like a mist, but within the hour the route ahead was only visible for about 20 feet. He had pulled out a poncho to cover himself and rode on slowly then had to stop because Robbie halted. Visibility was now only a few feet and the horse would not go further. Above to the south shone the sun, a sort of glow overhead. Off to the right there were some trees, subtle dark shapes, like giants waiting to take him in their grasp. Also to the right, was something else a lot larger but it was so shrouded in the dense cloud that he couldn't make it out. He figured now was the time to stop and wait until the cloud cleared. It wasn't long before darkess began to fall and Sam made camp for what would be a wet night.
All wrapped up in his blanket and poncho, Sam kept dry and slept soundly. When he woke up everything was clear and he got up. Before his eyes was something he had never seen before. Camp had been a short ways from the track. It was an unusual sight, his bed was only about 5 feet from a drop off. Ahead was the structure he had not been able to define the evening before, nor could he now. Beyond that were several buildings and more track with a wide siding and something past that which also looked odd. Curiousity won over breakfast and he took a good look at things, after moving the horse and mule to a grassy patch.
A building with a tower and something else was first. A bit further on was a small bridge with track going to the other side of it. He noticed that the track everywhere was all covered with weeds and dirt. A large building ahead, with the siding tracks running around it caught his interest and he went to it. The door was not locked, so entered the place. There were pieces of paper on a desk which spoke of a gold mine and the like. Going outside, he walked further on toward more buildings. Some were cabins with beds inside, one appeared to be an eating hall with a small bar in one corner. Across the track was this funny shaped structure. Inside it was some machinery the like of which he had never seen before. Questions were flying around in his head as he headed back to his belongings and decided to use the large place with all the paperwork as a temporary abode. It looked like he was going to be there for a while so prepared something to eat for breakfast.
For three days Sam explored the entire mining camp. He found that the tower at the first end of it went down into the mine. A ladder was next to the hoist and he descended about 30 feet underground, an oil lamp he had found went with him for light. Once on the floor of the mine some more light was coming down via the tower and hoist hole. There were about 4 tunnels in all and at one place some picks, leaning against the wall. He thought he'd try one out to see what happened.
Several very solid blows were made to the wall. The last one released a very large piece of rock and he stood amazed at what he saw. There in front of him was a fair sized vein of gold. Chipping out a few pieces, Sam put them into his pockets and returned to the surface. All he could assume was that the gold had run out, so the mine owner closed it down. They had given up too soon, a few more blows to the wall in the tunnel and they would have discovered the new vein.
Once on the surface of the ground, he sat down and had a good think. The big question waswho owned the mine? Next, could he afford to buy it? There would be the need for other people, who could be trusted, because Sam was a farmer not a miner. He packed up the animals and went all the way back to the beginning of the little railroad.
The following month was filled with gathering information, learning about how mines operate and prepare the ore. The mining conglomerate had abandoned it because the gold ran out and did not think it worth the expense of getting all the stuff from it back. Sam asked how much they would want for it and the answer was whatever he wanted to pay because it was of no value to the company. So Sam paid them $100 and the $50 dollar admin fee to have the entire thing transferred to his name. The pieces of gold he brought from the mine proved to be of very high value. Sam now owned a gold mine and everything connected with it.
So began the McGresty Mining Company.
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© Ted Hawkins
Dec 29, 2020