Last Best
Chance City
It was a breathing, cackling stink, Last Best Chance City --- an open keg, a heap of slop, a decomposed pig. It was gumbo on your boot soles getting heavier with each step, the smell of shit and beans, of roast buffalo and horse piss --- a belch, a sonata, an explosion of vice and language --- a place of dead strangers floating daily down the river, live good fellows, earnest evil --- a place where every day there was spectacle in the street --- something to pay for, something to see for free, and something to pretend not to notice. It was America in all her mad glory: Swedes, Irish, Jews, Italians, Bohemians, English, German, African, Chinese, Mexican, and native --- all of us greedy, yearning, sweating, hiding, longing, hoping. We were full and drunk, yet thirstier and hungrier than we'd ever been in our lives. We wanted freedom and we missed our chains. We were wealthy sons and lost daughters, deserters, heroes, cowards, killers, thieves and ex-slaves and slave traders. We wrapped up our fears in optimism, buried our guilt in sentimentality. We were miners, freighters, tree-cutters, butchers, teamsters, gamblers, beggars, hurdy-gurdy girls, and outlaws. Wives, husbands, daughters, sons. We ran boardinghouses, laundries, kitchens, a half-dozen stores carrying provisions and hardware, a jewelry shop, two bakeries, a gun-smith, a butcher shop, five hotels, and gin mills too many to count.

By nightfall on a Saturday the street would be filled with staggering miners. They drank joy juice, brave maker, black and tan, red disturbance, forty rods, skull bend, apache tears, lamp oil, white mule, tiger spit, who shot john, tangle leg, blue rain, tarantula juice, panther piss, and Mormon valley tan. They gambled on fighting cocks, on horse and mule races, on mule and bear fights, on bull rides, on boxing matches and card games. In the saloons they'd break each other's heads. They'd bite and gouge, and with the blood barely dried, they'd share a drink and take turns with a whore.

The first Saturday night I was there, a man killed another in a fight, but the legal defense was made --- and successfully, too --- that some necks are so fragile a man cannot be held responsible for breaking them.

On the hitching posts outside the Sighing Bones, every knave with a knife carved the name of some faraway girl who'd come to symbolize all his long life left behind. Including the language he used to know. And all of the desires and crimes that from a distance seemed quaint or holy and best approached drunk. The roughest of the toughs would sit and sing and cry and dig initials into the posts that soon wore out with carving, broke down and burned, only to be replaced by new ones. Each dawn then seemed to mark the arrival of an uncarved future --- and each night the close of a cluttered, sentimentalized, and soon burned past.

Of course optimism is easier with gold. So is innocence and a degree of harmony. Gold was something that all of us with our varied pasts and peculiar dreams could agree upon: having it made us rich, and not having it made us determined to get it.

Having it drove us mad, not having it drove us madder.

How far would we all have come to get it? Twice as far? Three times as far? Around the world? The Chinese did.

I would have walked forever. But I didn't have to. Gold lay in the gravel of Cricket Creek as it made a wide S-turn around the town and descended gradually into a narrow canyon. It lay up the gulches that fed the stream, in the mud of its banks, and in the fissures between rocks under the mud. Gold glittered in our sluice boxes and pans. Filled our bags and pockets. It trickled down into the cracks between the boards on the one-block-long sidewalk outside the Sighing Bones Saloon and the Dead Dog Hotel. It filled cubbies in family homes, boxes and bags and cans tucked behind logs or buried in sod roofs. It sprinkled into the sawdust and dirt floors of the tacked-together stores. You could see it in the makeup and dresses of the hurdy-gurdy girls, in the righteous brows of the good fellows and their wives. It glittered in the eyes of the gamblers, on the wet lips and tears of the drunks, in the shine on the pistols and knives of the thieves.

We all found it --- and for a while it colored our dreams and glared blindingly in the skies of our nightmares. Some worked steadily on steady-paying claims, some moved from one claim to another in a fierce and determined and often futile effort to find more. Some people took it from the ground, and others took it from them --- at the general store, the gambling table, the barroom, the dance hall, the bedroom, or on a dark and lonely trail at the point of a gun. Some of us grew fabulously rich, and some grew only a little bit rich, but all of us grew rich for a while.

--- From Freeman Walker
David Allan Cates
©2008 Unbridled Books
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