International Writers Magazine:
THE RUSH of 72 by
ISBN 1-4116-1088-1 - Lulu Press
Chapter One (extract):
A Matter of Great Secrecy
long years after Philip Arnold and John Slack had departed Kentucky,
brimful of optimism, life found them stepping off the Oakland
ferry into a sea of genuine San Francisco mud. The rain had done
its worst and no matter who you complained to in the city, the
roads were a disgrace and seemed set to get worse. These had been
lonesome years for our two prospectors, some damned hungry ones
too. Folks shunned them as they walked along Market Street. It
was obvious to any casual observer that they'd probably just come
down off the hills and had had no success whatsoever. These two
were pitiable, dirty specimens, mere relics of men, closer to
beasts than human.
Mud caked their
hair and lacquered their thin worn leather coats. It was a lucky thing
the fog had come in after the worst of the rain, for the very sight
of these two men might have frightened horses or brought terror to young
children and delicate noses.
Theirs had been a brutal trip, and Slack hardly needed to go through
the charade of wearing boots at all, for his toes poked out from both
feet. No one would guess that under this mud lay proud manhood. Arnold,
the shorter of the two, was brawny, somewhat stocky but deadly handsome,
only the thinning of his hair revealed his age, but he was not a man
to let that worry him. Slack had seen this man out-stare a rattlesnake
and with those same bright, brown eyes he could test the nerves of the
most confident poker player in a saloon or press the lady of his fancy
to succumb to his natural charms.
Slack had none of these attributes. At six feet he stood out among men,
but even with the mud washed off, no one would ever think him distinguished
or charming or even halfway handsome. Not even his sharp blue eyes assisted
his demeanor. Nevertheless, youd be wrong to dismiss this man
from his appearance, for a sharp brain hid behind the dirt and his plain
manner of speaking. The truth of it was, here was a man who was honest
and modest, content to leave the show to his partner. This particular
day, however, he was a touch vexatious.
As they made slow progress through the mire, Slack would pause every
so often to stare behind them, as if he were expecting trouble. Hed
been especially nervous on the nickel ferry, convinced that every soul
knew their business that day. Arnold had done his best to calm him,
pointing out that with the fog down on the bay, people were more than
likely staring out to warn the Captain of the other boats, mindful of
all the times in the past that the ferries had gone down with all hands.
At Market and California streets the mud and chaos seemed to be at its
very worst. Some Chinese laborers stood around a brazier warming their
hands. They were watching others struggle with a slippery rope passed
through a makeshift block and tackle as they lowered iron rails onto
a stack behind them. They looked cold and miserable and probably wished
they'd never answered the call of the Central Pacific railroad. Crocker's
coolies, they were called, had been imported from China to build his
railroad, but now some mean spirited folk were calling for them to be
sent back to China. Yet who else would work so hard or so cheaply? The
Chinese had been at Promatory when the golden spike had been driven
in and recorded for history for all of mankind to witness. Yet from
those photographs in the papers youd have been hard pressed to
Now here they were digging Crocker and Hopkins Cable Car lines - testimony
to their continued usefulness.
Arnold and Slack kept a wary eye about them as they passed the diggings.
Arnold cursed as he nearly slipped and fell. Slack held him steady.
Arnold had one or two things to say about the cable car, too. It was
one thing for the rich to choose to live up on Nob Hill, but for them
to dig up San Francisco so as to provide themselves with transportation
to get up there, well, even in Boston you couldn't have got away with
that. Still, perhaps Arnold harboured a tinge of jealousy. In fact,
Arnold kind of admired Charles Crocker. At least the man had been out
there in the wilderness, not in some fancy office in the city. His enormous
bulk had been sat at the railhead in his railcar every inch of the way,
snow or bake, giving orders. There weren't many other rich folks you
could say had actually earned their money and taken the government for
such a ride.
It had been with respect that Arnold and Slack had gone along to Crocker's
offices way back in the summer of I870 and had told the big man about
their idea of diamond prospecting. Crocker, like Arnold, had read with
much fascination about the Kimberley diamonds and the fortunes being
made in South Africa, so he had listened to Arnold, considered it, then
turned them down flat. He'd built a railroad clear across the Sierra
Mountains and up to the foothills of the Rockies. He'd seen gold, he'd
seen silver, he'd even seen nickle, copper and quartz, but never once
had he seen a diamond, and he for one didn't believe the American continent
had a single one.
There was no arguing with that. Arnold knew, right then, that if he
was ever to get investors to help him join the ranks of those living
on Nob Hill, he'd damn well have to find those diamonds himself. In
this quest there had never been two more determined prospectors than
Arnold or Slack, nor two more mocked for their obsession. Some scoffed,
but it hadnt stopped the odd prospector, likewise dazzled by the
riches being made in Kimberleys diamond hole, taking a closer
look at quartz bearing rock and other semi-precious stones that would
come their way from time to time.
Yet, it's a fact between British Columbia and the San Joaquin valley,
not a single diamond had yet turned up. Never daunted, Arnold and Slack
combed the mountains and stalked the Indians. Somewhere, Arnold was
convinced, the Indians had a secret place and he aimed to find it.
Slack wiped the drizzle from his eyes and again cursed the fog which
clung to his body like a wet blanket. He could hear people and horses
around him, but only if one actually bumped into them could one actually
see them. Fog or rain he could stand on their own, but together it made
a person unnaturally damp and cold, likely as not to catch some fever
that was always present in these foul-smelling cities. Slack was always
loathe to leave the wilderness for the confines of a modern noisy city
with its mountains of horse manure. City folks just didn't understand
what it was to breathe fresh air, theyd be better off being born
without a nose at all. Slack turned to Arnold and helped him up onto
the boards of California street. All around them mud flowed like a constant
stream of lava. There was an awful stench coming from the diggings in
the middle of the road. The cable car trenches were filled with city
sewage which having found its way in could find no way out. Altogether,
what with the fog, drizzle, mud and the stench, one had to be a pretty
determined kind of San Franciscan to walk abroad in this weather. Not
a few citizens had already remarked in the pages of the Alta and the
saloons, that afore they filled in those long trenches, the bodies of
a few city fathers and railroad men could well find themselves lying
at the bottom of them.
Philip Arnold walked on, one sticky foot in front of the other, slipping
and sliding on the irregular boards. Slack began to cough, the years
of dirt and dust in his lungs protesting at the damp. He began to wonder
if all this was a mistake. A man only had his health, without that he
was done for. The cruel contrast with the harsh heat across the bay
in Oakland couldn't have been more emphatic. Their destination, however,
was but one block away now. It was widely known that the newly constructed
building had cost no less than a quarter of a million dollars to build
and was the most magnificent example of its type. It was hard to make
a judgement in this fog. Nevertheless Slack was of the opinion that
you should judge a bank by the men behind the facade, not the other
way around. He was a hard man to impress with piles of stone.
Arnold came to a halt opposite the bank on California Street. An old
battered Concord went by, its team of horses protesting at the weight
of the mud on the wheels. Arnold wondered if coaches would be running
at all once the cable car was completed. Perhaps it was time to buy
Cable stock. Certainly he'd have to be considering some investments
soon. It was a funny thing to be poor so long and then be on the very
verge of a fortune, and have to consider ways to protect your wealth.
Naturally all this was still in the future, there was much to be done
yet, but the seeds had been sown. Suddenly anxious, he patted the coat
pocket closest to his heart and was reassured to find a large hard lump
still situated there. Theyd not been robbed...yet.
Slack was still watching out for trouble. Every miner knew that the
most dangerous time was crossing the street to the bank. There was always
some scallywag lurking about ready for trouble. But on this miserable
day, he'd have had trouble telling these two men apart from the mud,
even if he could see through the fog.
Arnold rested his hand on Slack's sleeve momentarily. "Bank's open
now. Any doubts John Slack? 'Cause if you have, best say your piece
now, there's no going back after this."
Slack shook his head. He would not change his mind. Enough was enough.
Everything they had had been invested in what rested in Arnold's pocket.
Years of sweat and not a little blood has been spilled. Every last cent
they could get out of the ground had amounted to just one small pile
and to look at it, it was hard to say it had all been worth it. Twelve
years is a long time to live in the bowels of Mother Earth, dining on
nothing but promises and keeping a rifle handy in case of anyone who
wanted to make his fortune the easy way.
The fog thinned out for a moment, revealing the Bank of California in
all its glory. Good blue stone lugged over from Angel Island had been
used to clad the building, lending the imposing two storeys the solidity
expected from the states principal banking institution. Well it
had better be secure, Slack was thinking. Not that he seriously thought
this bank could fold. He knew enough men up at the Comstock and Ophir
mines who'd once been rich shareholders, richer than this bank itself,
but each one in turn had gotten into debt somehow, and afore-long it
was the bank itself who had become the largest shareholder. Bankers
who didn't know one end of a pick from the other owned it all. The thought
of it made Slack's blood boil. He reckoned that his time in Virginia
City alone had earned him at least six windows and maybe a door at this
Naturally they couldn't stare at the bank forever. Still, it was a moment
worth preserving. It had been a long time coming. To get as far as going
into the Bank of California was an achievement, considering how they
had been living these past months.
Arnold had been contemplating on things more serious. Did they go into
the bullion entrance - the logical place for prospectors - or the front
entrance? The Bullion entrance was just across the way on Sansome, but
it didn't seem right somehow. After all, they weren't carrying gold.
He made the decision. The man they would have to see was the chief cashier
himself, at the very least.
A thought passed through his head that perhaps they should have paused
at the bath house first, but then he quickly dismissed the notion, knowing
how ridiculous they'd look with white faces peering out of these muddy
"Come on," he muttered, nudging Slack off the sidewalk. Slack
followed, ever vigilant, holding his rifle before him as if sure they'd
be robbed in the bank, never mind five steps away from it.
Now it might come as a surprise to hear that inside the bank things
weren't as cool, calm and dusty as one might expect. This is because
just a moment before Arnold and Slack set off across wide California
Street toward the main entrance, a Mrs. Jennifer Bond, wife of William
Bond, ship chandler and as a consequence a wealthy man, had entered
the bank in wild confusion. She'd swept in with the fog still clinging
to her pretty skirts and had been unable to speak, she was so much a
twitter. It was all she could do to wobble her eyes and issue a plaintive
hysterical squeak as she pointed behind her back into the fog, perhaps
regretting she'd not taken flight the moment she'd glimpsed the robbers.
The bank employees weren't entirely stupid, no sir. When any woman enters
a bank all hysterical and pointing back towards the street, they would
grow nervous wondering what misfortune was to come through the doors.
The assistant cashier, Mr. Thomas Brown immediately stepped over to
the stack of gold and silver coins beside the tellers nearest the door.
In those days there were no grills and tellers weren't kept in cages.
The double eagles were stacked twenty high, worth four hundred dollars
a stack, conveniently placed so that tellers could scoop them up off
the wide highly polished mahogany counters. Banking back then had the
air of a gentlemens club, but Thomas Brown was a worrying soul.
The fact that they had never been held up didn't mean they wouldn't
be and with that woman throwing terror into every tellers heart, it
strained no imagination to surmise the very worst. Mr. Thomas Brown,
normally impassive and resolute in his stiff collar, paled. All eyes
focused on the doors.
Mere seconds later, the squelching footsteps of Philip Arnold and John
Slack were heard slapping the boards. Thomas Brown hurriedly began scooping
up double eagles and thrusting them out of sight. Several other tellers
took his cue, and there was a great flurry as silver and gold disappeared
off the counters. Their foresight was rewarded when in through the doors
came Arnold and Slack in their muddy garb. Threat became reality when
customers and bank tellers alike saw Slacks rifle held at the
ready and the furtive look in Arnolds eyes. The atmosphere was
so charged that if Slack had said as much as boo the tellers would have
pelted him with the same gold coins to save their own skins. Instead,
Slack swung his rifle over to his other hand and the tension rose perceptibly
around the banking hall.
Not a word was said, but there wasn't a soul in that hall who didn't
believe this was an armed robbery. Certainly the bank guard, expressly
hired for the purpose of keeping the peace, was regretting the day he'd
ever needed a job.
Imagine, if you will, the look of astonishment on the faces of Arnold
and Slack as they stood in the banking hall with the brass-plate doors
noisily swinging behind them. It was pandemonium. Right before them
women customers fainted, grown men shrank to the walls and tellers flung
themselves behind the solid mahogany mass of their counters, with the
occasional disembodied hand coming up for the last of the double eagles.
Such dedication in the face of danger.
Slack turned to Arnold and both wondered if they had walked into the
midst a robbery. Arnold watched with bewilderment as people shrank from
them in horror and regretted they hadn't stopped off at the bathhouse
after all. Clearly the people of San Francisco had developed some very
fine and sensitive noses since their last visit.
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© Sam North 2008
the George Olden's Review of Diamonds
- the Rush of '72
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terrific piece of storytelling' Historical Novel Society Review
'American history brought to true life.'
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Writing at Portsmouth University
Diamonds - The Rush of '72 is also available
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- The Rush of '72
By Sam North
Buy now from Amazon.com
terrific piece of storytelling' Historical Novel Society Review
Also printed in the UK and available from
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