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My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter V. A Visit to Clayton Gulch

AS it was my custom when journeying through my diocese to spend several days in a mining-town, it was often possible to prepare the way for my visitation to the next camp through the kind offices of personal friends already made. Thus it was that Mrs. Deardon, one of our church-members in Challis, informed me that her husband kept the hotel and saloon in Clayton, and that she had already sent him word of my intended visit. A white horse was placed at my disposal by a gentleman who facetiously reminded me that my first stopping-place en route would be a mining-camp known as Bay Horse.

It was at this latter place that I met for the first and only time a strange, wild man of the mountains, who was spoken of as the "Bulgarian monk." He carried a gun, and was followed by a dog. Occasionally he would descend from the hills, where he led a solitary life in the woods, to a mining-camp, and preach the Gospel to those who were attracted by his weird appearance and mysterious personality. He affected the conventional dress and bearing of the apostles, and seemed to consider himself a sort of modern John the Baptist. By the more superstitious and impressionable he was regarded with much awe and wonder; by others, and especially the young, he was greatly feared, and mothers would conjure with his name in keeping their children in the path of obedience. Whence he came and whither he went, no one knew. His movements were enshrouded in mystery. I tried to engage him in conversation and elicit from him some information as to his life and purpose. But my efforts were unavailing. As the weather grew cold in the autumn he would disappear, not to be seen again until the winter had passed and the snow had melted in the mountains. Then with his rifle and faithful dog he would once more be seen in the woods. Whenever he condescended to come to a settlement, it was only for a brief hour, to deliver his message or warning, and then disappear. He repelled all attempts to draw him into conversation, nor would he accept hospitality or kindness from any one. He suddenly ceased to make his annual visits, and no one seemed to be able to solve the enigma of his life. On the occasion of my seeing him at Bay Horse he was just leaving that place, and I can vividly recall his curiously clad retreating figure, as he climbed the mountain and disappeared among the pines.

Reaching Clayton about one o'clock, I was met cordially by my host, who bade me alight and partake of his hospitality. I was somewhat late for dinner, but the dining-room was still open, and I soon found myself seated at the table. Scarcely had I begun my dinner when a man in the far corner of the room hailed me in a loud voice.

"Hello, Bishop," said he. "Is that you?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Bishop, come over this way, and eat with a feller," beckoning to me.

By this time I had easily discovered that my friend was far from sober. I declined the invitation to join him by reminding him that I had already been served, and that it would be inconvenient to have my dishes carried over to his table. I added that I would see him after dinner. That suggestion did not at all satisfy him. He said:

"Well, then, Bishop, if you won't eat with me, I'll come over and eat with you."

And over he came. He was the impersonation of good-nature and amiability, though somewhat familiar for an entire stranger. When he was seated near me he said:

"Bishop, are you going to talk to the boys here to-night?"

I told him that was my object in coming to the camp.

"Well," he added, "I am glad, for God knows these fellers here need it. You see, Bishop, the trouble with the boys here is that they drink too much." He was obviously the last person to complain of that tendency on the part of his brethren. So I ventured to say:

"Well, my friend, I am very sorry to hear that, but, if you will pardon me, it seems to me that you are suffering from that same trouble yourself just now."

He saw my point, but was ready for my sally, and quickly rejoined:

"You are right, Bishop; but don't you see, when the Bishop comes a feller just has to celebrate."

It was easy to establish kindly relations with so pleasant a nature. His next remark was:

"Bishop, I heard you at Ketchum. Are you going to give them that same talk you gave us fellers there?"

I told him I had thought of preaching another sermon.

"Oh, give them that same talk, Bishop; that was a hell of a good talk, and will hit these fellers here just right."

He then wished to know where I was going to preach and the hour. I told him the service would be in the dance-hall over Barnes's saloon at eight o'clock that evening. He asked me if I would allow him to help me "round-up the boys." I answered that I thought his help would not be necessary; that I intended to visit the mill, and go down in the mines, and call in at all the stores, and invite everybody. But before I escaped from him he had expressed his purpose to be on hand without fail.

After calling on the superintendent, and letting all the people know about the services, I returned to the hotel and had supper. About half-past six I went over to see the dance-hall. It was in a most untidy condition. There had been a dance the night before, and it had been left in great disorder. I found a broom, raised the windows, and swept the place thoroughly. I then dusted the organ and the chairs, and put things in order as best I could. Finding an oil-can, I filled the lamps and cleaned the chimneys, and was quite pleased at the improved appearance of things. I then sat down to think over my address and prepare for the service. It must have been about half-past seven when I heard the sound of heavy footsteps ascending the outside stairway. It was my friend.

"Bishop," he asked, "are you ready for the boys? Shall I round them up now?"

"No, not yet," I said, "wait about half an hour, please."

"All right. I'll be back in a half hour."

Sure enough, a little before eight he again reported. "Are you ready now, Bishop?"

"Yes," I replied. "You may now round them up."

I still hoped that the constable might come to my relief and lock up my friend in "the cooler" until after service. But no such good-fortune awaited me. Presently I heard his voice resounding up and down the narrow street, or gulch, crying out:

"Oh yes, boys! Oh yes! Come this way. The Bishop is ready. The meetin' is about to begin."

His invitation was promptly acted upon, for soon the tramp of feet was heard upon the stairway, and it was not long before every chair and bench was occupied. Standing-room was at a premium; and when I was about to give out the opening hymn, and was congratulating myself that my friend had been opportunely side-tracked, he, last of all, made his appearance. His condition had not improved, but, on the contrary, had grown worse during his visits to the several saloons where he went to "round-up the boys." I was not a little annoyed by his arrival, and anticipated trouble. There was no chair to offer him. Suddenly it occurred to me that the only safe thing to do was to give him my chair after placing it on the opposite side of the little table where I had been sitting. He was limp, and easily managed. I greeted him kindly, and, taking him by the shoulders, seated him so that he would be facing me and immediately under my eye. As I thrust him down, I said:

"You shall have the best seat in the house, right here by me."

"All right, Bishop," he replied, audibly, looking around at the congregation with a broad grin. "There ain't no flies on you."

I gave out a hymn, requesting all to stand. As the singing proceeded I noticed that as long as I kept my eyes on my friend he was very respectful, but whenever I looked in the other direction he would pull out a large red handkerchief, and ostentatiously wipe his eyes as if his religious emotions were stirred to the depths. The devotional service safely over, the sermon began. The text was those words of St. Paul before Felix: "As he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come." One could hardly refrain, with such a text, from dwelling on the great evils of intemperance. It was evident that drunkenness was the prevailing vice of the camp, and that it was destroying many of the young lives before me. As long as that was my theme I observed that my friend, just before me, hung his head in shame. He was conscience-stricken. He felt that the preacher was personal in his remarks, and had him chiefly in mind. I shall never forget his look of abject misery and self-abasement.

At length I passed on to another vice, that of gambling, also very prevalent, and equally debasing in its effects. Now it just happened, as I learned afterwards, that my convivial hearer was not addicted to card-playing or gambling in any of its forms. Whatever sins he might possess, he could plead "not guilty" to this indictment. Therefore, when he realized that I had passed on from the consideration of his particular weakness, and was launching out to attack the sins of others, he immediately braced up and looked me straight in the eye, his face radiant with interest and delight. As I proceeded his head nodded in evident approval of my arguments, and at last I could hear him say:

"That's right, Bishop. Go for 'em. Hit 'em again."

He became more and more noisy and excited. Finally he clapped his hands, and, unable longer to restrain himself, he shouted:

"Good, good! Give 'em hell, Bishop. Give 'em hell."

I looked at him severely, and motioned to him with my hand deprecatingly, and he subsided.

It was a memorable evening. After the closing hymn and the benediction the men lingered long, and many of them came up and shook my hand gratefully; but I could see there was something on their minds which they wished to express. At length one of them found courage to say:

"Bishop, things did not look quite natural in church to-night."

I asked what he meant.

"Why," he said, "you didn't look like a bishop, and didn't have 'em on as you did in Challis."

"Oh, you refer to my vestments," I said, and explained to them that I had left my robes and prayer-books in a gunny-sack with Mr. Deardon at his saloon. He had placed the bag behind the counter; but later a ranchman, living out of town about nine miles, had called for his gunny-sack, and, as they all look alike, had taken mine instead of his own; so when the time for service came I was without my usual equipment.

"Oh, that's the way it happened, is it? Well, you see, Bishop, we boys like to have you dress up for us. It seems so much more like church back home."

The next day, as I sat writing in my room at the hotel, some one knocked at my door. My visitor was a young man from the East, in whom I became at once greatly interested. A cursory glance was enough to reveal the fact that he had the bearing and instincts of a gentleman. Intelligence and refinement were clearly written upon his countenance. I arose and greeted him, and asked him to be seated. He told me his story. He was a college graduate. His mother and sisters were still living. He had formed the habit of drink until he had lost one position after another, and at length determined to break off from all his Eastern connections and make a new start in a country where he was utterly unknown. He came to the mountains of Idaho. He soon secured a good place, and for some months life seemed to be full of promise and hope; but in an evil hour he yielded to his old enemy, fell again, and was finally dismissed. So he had buried himself in this far-distant mining-camp, and was digging ore as a common laborer by the day. It was evident that the alcohol habit had a grip on him, from which escape would be exceedingly difficult. He said he had been out to the service the evening before, and, as he was on the night shift, had dropped in to have a little talk with me. When he said good-bye, he paused, and, gazing at me with a look of inexpressible sadness, asked me if he could take the pledge in my presence. I said by all means, and after we had knelt down and asked that he might be kept strong and brave and victorious, he signed a form which I wrote out and gave him, and also a duplicate which I kept myself and still possess. He promised to write me from time to time, and we exchanged several letters. The last tidings from him were reassuring, and, as he was called home later, let us hope he proved a comfort and stay to those dependent upon him.

This case is only one of many, as may be imagined; for the Far West, with its life of adventure, appeals to young men, among whom frequently are those who have enjoyed the best advantages of home and education. In some cases, success crowns their efforts; but more frequently they go down, unable to resist the terrible temptations that beset them.

On a former visit I had been preaching in a saloon. The proprietor had shown me no small kindness, and had sprinkled sawdust on the floor, and hung sheets from the ceiling, thus hiding the counter and the bottles behind it. The men had been respectful and quiet, although many had stood throughout the service. At the close the saloonkeeper said:

"Bishop, would you mind following me just as you are into the kitchen?"

Still wearing my robes, I followed him. Before entering he paused to tell me that his cook was a young man "who had seen better days," that he was a member of the Episcopal church, and was most anxious to meet me; that he had begged that I come out where he was at work. Upon ushering me into the kitchen my guide retired, leaving me alone with the young man. I shall never forget that moment. He threw himself upon his knees, grasped my hand, and kissed it again and again, sobbing. When he recovered himself sufficiently, he proceeded to recite to me some incidents of his sad career. He was the son of a London clergyman; was a graduate of Oxford University; had fallen into dissolute habits, and forged a note; friends of his father had gathered around him, hushed up the scandal, paid the note, and supplied him with enough money to reach New York; there he had secured lucrative employment, but had again fallen into evil ways, and so had been going down, down ever since, until, at last, working his way westward, he had actually become the cook in this saloon kitchen. It was evident, even then, that he was dying with consumption. I gave him a prayer-book, which he greatly appreciated, made him promise to write me, cheered him up, and, with my blessing, bade him good-bye. He lived only a few weeks after that interview.

As I returned to the Wood River country from this trip I spent a few days at Hailey. One afternoon a card bearing the name "Joe Oldham" was brought to my room at the hotel. I recognized at once that my visitor was a famous gambler, of whom I had often heard; but despite his unenviable profession, Joe Oldham was highly respected by the men of Idaho. He stood at the head of his business for decency and honor and integrity. Naturally, however, I wondered why he had called to see me; but I immediately descended to the parlor, where, attired in a faultless suit ot broadcloth, Mr. Oldham awaited me. Tall, dignified in bearing, most gracious and polite in manner, he extended his hand. As I grasped it he said:

"Bishop, I hear you are from Missouri."

"Yes," I replied, "I am proud to say that is my native State." I added that I was from Fayette, Howard County.

His face lighted up with a smile, and he exclaimed: "Howard County! Why, I have been there. I have relatives in old Howard."

We at once became good friends. I soon learned his mission. He simply wished me to write a letter to his "folks," who lived in Independence, Missouri. His family consisted of a mother and two sisters.

"Bishop," he said, "as long as Joe Oldham lives they will never know what it is to want for anything. If you will write my mother, and just tell her that you have met me, it will make her very happy. Tell her that you are the Bishop of Idaho, and that her son, Joe, called upon you. Now, Bishop, I expect you have heard of me." "Yes," I replied, "often, Mr. Oldham." "And you know what my business is?" "Well, yes, Mr. Oldham. I have heard something about it in a general way."

"Now, Bishop, I am going to tell you all about it. I am a professional gambler. I run a fine place here. It is no place for a bishop to visit, or I would like to take you around and show it to you. But I run a clean house. Every man who comes there has a square deal. No crookedness there, Bishop.

No drinking and carousing allowed. It is a place for a white man." Rising to depart, he said:

"Now, Bishop, if you will write to my mother," giving me her address, "I shall be so grateful to you. But, may I ask of you one great favor when you write? Just don't mention what my business is. It would simply break her heart if she knew how I make my money. For, Bishop, if there ever was a good Christian woman in this world, it is my dear old mother. I only beg of you not to give me away."

Joe again extended his hand and grasped mine. As he withdrew it I found that he had placed a twenty-dollar gold-piece in my palm. "Please take it, Bishop," he said; "you will find some good use for it. And just let me say that whenever you want another just like it, if you will only drop a line to 'Joe Oldham, Hailey, Idaho,' it will be sure to come."

Invariably, after that first interview, when I would meet my Missouri friend he would slip into my hand a twenty-dollar gold-piece. He was a generous soul, warm hearted, and loyal to his friends. His kindness to the widow and the orphan, to the man hurt in the mines, and to all in trouble, made him greatly beloved. He had about him a certain title of nobility. He did not claim to be a Christian, but as he never turned his face away from any poor man, let us hope that the face of the Lord has not been turned away from him.

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