In 1867, I emigrated from Erie to the Reconstructing United States with the object of settling in distant California.
My fortune led me from job to job until I found myself working as a teller in Zion's Bank of St. George, Utah Territory.
One morning in spring, I arrived for work to find a strange armored wagon parked in front of the bank and several beefy
individuals hauling canvas sacks to the safe in Mr. Dotson's office. My superior was stationed beside the front door,
discussing something with the leader of this odd shipment, and he paused in his chat long enough to sternly shoo me away.
"Come back in twenty minutes, Riley," he said.
I adjourned to the shade of a nearby tamarisk tree where our second teller, Mr. Davis, was lounging. Davis informed me
that our safe was being coopted for the next twenty-four hours to store some ex-Confederate specie that had turned up in
Arizona. "It's being sent on to Denver for re-minting," he said. Davis then prattled on about some government survey crew
in the area who had lost a barge in the spring floods. While this was fascinating news I failed to see how anyone could
profit from having a boat in a desert, so I commenced daydreaming about California until the strangers finished their
unloading and we were allowed to go to work. Mr. Dotson didn't even dock us.
Despite the irregularity of the large amount of strange specie in our safe, the day went well until about twenty minutes
before three, when five men in long dusters walked into the lobby and went straight to work. The first man produced a short,
double-barreled shotgun from under his coat, the second whipped out a brace of heavy pistols which he used to cover Davis
and me, while the third man flipped our 'open' sign to 'closed' and locked the front door. Meanwhile, the remaining two men
had walked to Mr. Dotson's office, and knocked.
"What is it?" Mr. Dotson shouted.
The bandit leader smiled before answering in a broad southern drawl. "We found another sack of specie in the van, sir; we
need to put it in the safe."
Mr. Dotson's door opened, and he was confronted with a revolver pointed at his nose. The bandit leader pushed passed our boss
and into the office where the safe was located. "I'm Captain Moxley, CSA," he said by way of introduction. "My men and I have
come for the gold you're storing, sir." The Captain turned to another of the bandits. "Private Jackson? Check the back please."
One of the men nodded, and went to examine our alley. "Private Harrison? Watch the lobby. Richards? Bring the tellers in here
where we can get better acquainted, and Sergeant Billings, you may bring up the wagon, if you please."
We tellers were ushered into Mr. Dotson's office, where we joined our boss on the divan. Captain Moxley leaned against the safe, and waved a hand in invitation. "Open it," he commanded. Our boss stared back at him. Moxley nodded, took two steps and punched Davis in the face before looking at Mr. Dotson again. "Open it," he repeated. Again, the president merely stared at the Captain who sighed, and produced a large bowie knife which he held to my throat. Davis fainted, Private Richards sniggered, and Mr. Dotson licked his lips while I felt distinctly queasy. "Open it, or you're going to need some new tellers," the Captain said casually. I stared at Mr. Dotson, the steel at my throat gleamed in the sunlight. The president finally walked to the safe, and began working the combination. Captain Moxley smiled as he put away the knife, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Once the safe was opened, Moxley was careful to take only the canvas sacks. The other funds were not disturbed, and the Captain stood guard with the shotgun as the privates carried the loot to a wagon Sergeant Billings had parked out back, "Federals comin' sir," Private Harrison reported from the lobby.
Moxley reacted coolly. "How many?"
"Looks like three of that crew that brought the gold," the man answered.
"Just a patrol, but bad timing for us." Moxley turned to me, and pointed with the shotgun. "You, on the wagon, we must insist you accompany us as hostage for a time."
I climbed in the back of the wagon, and was seated between eight heavy sacks of coins. The Captain and Harrison mounted horses while the sergeant and the other privates climbed on the wagon. Moxley gave them their orders. "You know where to go, wait there till dark; we'll let the hostage go when we leave. Clear?"
"Yes sir." The men saluted, and the sergeant whipped up the team, guiding them out of town, while keeping the bank building between us and the street. I heard a commotion, followed by the BOOM of the shotgun, then the sound of galloping horses, "Captain's drawin' em off," one of the privates grinned as we headed out of town toward the Virgin river.
Four hours later, dusk found me examining a wooden boat moored in the silt colored floodwater of the Virgin river. The craft was about eighteen feet long and four feet wide, with a covered bow that formed a little cabin forward. The craft was rigged with two sets of oars and a tiller over the stern. The bandits seemed to be planning a river trip because ,while the sergeant drove off in the wagon, I was detailed to load the cabin with supplies and the eight sacks of coins.
Private Richards grinned. "What's your name, boy?" he asked. I told him. "Well, Riley, what's it feel like handling a hundred thousand dollars in gold?" I said it felt pretty damned heavy, and he laughed. "You did pretty well back there Riley, not everyone could take having a Bowie knife at their throat without shakin'," I thanked him, then asked where all this money came from, and how did they find a boat out here in the desert?
Private Jackson walked over, "The money's the pay for General Sibley's Army of the West." He looked around at the empty desert, "We're kinda' under strength right now."
Richards chuckled "The boat used to belong to the United States Geological Survey," he laughed, "Captain heard that several were built for some expedition that went downriver a couple of years ago mappin' and explorin'."
Jackson took up the tale. "Captain says that the river goes all the way to Mexico, so why not use it to haul the loot?"
"You both talk too much," the sergeant growled as he walked back into camp.
"Aww, Sarge, we didn't mean nothin' by it," Jackson said.
"One of you should be on watch," the sergeant continued "We're wanted men now, and I heard a horse comin'."
"I'll see to it," Richards picked up a rifle, and walked into the surrounding scrub, but he returned almost immediately. "It's the Captain," he said, "Should I stay out just in case?"
Captain Moxley answered the question as he rode in. "Sergeant, we shove off immediately. I'm being followed." He didn't look happy at the prospect.
The troopers looked at each other, "Sir . . . " one finally spoke up, "shouldn't we wait for Harrison?"
Moxley strode to the boat. "Harrison's dead. The posse caught us." He began untying a rope.
"So, we're a man short on the oars now," Private Richards said.
"No, we're not." The Captain motioned to me. "Riley is your name, I believe?" he said. "Well, Mr. Riley, I'm impressing you into the Confederate Navy." He smiled. "Get in." Then he took off his duster and wrapped it around the stubby shotgun.
"More horses comin' sir!" Richards called out.
"Quickly, get aboard!" Moxley called out as he stowed the bundle under the rear bench of the boat, and we cast off, drifting south with the current. A posse pulled up at our launching site, and several shots were fired after us in the gathering darkness.
"Well," the sergeant drawled, "they know which way we're headin."
"Knowing and doing something about it are two different things," Moxley said, as he worked the tiller.
I decided to venture a comment. "The ground's pretty flat for several miles along here. They can go cross-country, and be ready before we round the bend."
"Not if we are faster," Captain Moxley spoke. "Time to man the oars, Sergeant."
"Right ,sir. Let's go lads, put your backs into it!"
Sergeant Billings set a fast pace and the heavy boat shot through the flood, but we still weren't quite fast enough to best the horsemen. The posse had five men lined up on the riverbank as we rounded the dusk-shrouded river bend, and they opened fire as soon as they saw us. Captain Moxley steered toward the far bank as the posse's bullets started kicking up the water around the boat. "Richards, Jackson, aim for their mounts, you may fire at will," he ordered. The troopers fished around in the darkness, and rested two rifled muskets on the gunwale, taking their time as they sighted on the outlines of the posse's mounts.
Ka-POW! Ka-POW! Two shots answered the posse's challenge, and a horse whinnied in pain. "I'll count that as a hit!" Jackson chuckled.
"Just man your oar," the sergeant laughed.
"That should slow one of them down anyway." The Captain nudged me with his foot. "How're you doing sailor?"
"Ready to be moving on, Captain," I replied.
"Nothing much riles you, does it?" Captain Moxley grinned.
"Oh, when my actions might have some meaning, you might see me get upset, sir. But right now?" I shrugged, "I prefer to play it safe."
"An intelligent man," Moxley said. "Sergeant, I believe we can pick up the pace a bit more, don't you?"
"Very well, Captain," the sergeant replied as he increased the pace. But they need not have bothered, we only saw the posse once more when they appeared behind us at another landing. They tried several more wild shots, but by then it was too dark for them to aim well, and the Captain didn't have the trooper's fire back.
We followed the river as it flowed southwest into the surrounding hills where the rocks seemed to tumble right down to the water's edge. The Captain kept us rowing the rest of the night. We pulled through canyons that towered so high around us that the sky was only a narrow band of stars punctuated by a half moon. Occasionally, a little creek emptied into the river, dumping its load of sand and gravel where the watercourses merged. The Captain finally allowed us to land by one of these little sand bars as the sun rose for a cold breakfast of dried fruit and water. After our exertions, the food tasted like ambrosia to me and I wolfed my portion down.
As we ate, the Captain eyed me. "You're taking this very well, Riley," he ventured.
I nodded, "I don't see myself as a combatant, sir," I replied. "I'm Irish, and didn't arrive here until the war was over."
Moxley nodded, "Well, if we get this money to General Sibley, the war just might start back up," he grinned. "Right, Sergeant?" The sergeant paused in his chewing, and nodded dutifully, but I noticed the two privates looking hard at each other as if they had other ideas.
"Aren't you worried about the posse catching up?" I asked.
"Not at all," the Captain replied. "This terrain is so broken and rough around these rivers that I doubt if even the Indians come through here often."
We continued rowing for the next three days. My suit and shirt were considerably distressed by the end of that time, and I was accorded a pair of heavy butternut colored pants from some stocks stored in the tiny cabin. Richards gave me a battered straw hat, and commented that now I was either a Confederate soldier, or a perfect scarecrow which drew a chuckle from the others.
We passed Callville in the night where the Virgin is swallowed by the larger Colorado River, and noticed a difference in the current almost immediately. The water was moving much faster and there were more boulders and snags to demand our attention. We found ourselves careening through chutes, and passages that made the channel almost impossible to follow. The Captain decided that we would have to stop running at night since the river was so dangerous.
"How do you even know we can get through here?" I finally asked after one particularly difficult stretch of water.
The Captain relaxed on the tiller and grinned. "I attended a lecture on this subject given by a one-armed US Major named Powell," he said. "He made this trip several years ago, and mapped the river and the canyons. I realized there was a route to Mexico available to me that a posse couldn't follow."
"So, you know where this river comes out then?" I asked.
"Yes, Riley, it comes out in the Gulf of California," he laughed, "but we'll probably dispense with your services close to Yuma. You can do what you like there."
I thanked him for the information but noticed that the other three men seemed strangely quiet about the possibility of a safe arrival. We sighted our first Indians not long after that on a cliff overlooking the river. There were three of them, and Sergeant Billings eyed them carefully as we floated along with the current. "Apaches, most likely," he said. "The east bank is Arizona, and that's their territory."
"Think they'll bother us?" Private Richards asked.
"Only if they can figure out how to get down here," the sergeant replied, as our boat carried us out of sight of the warriors.
We stopped early that day and camped on a little peninsula surrounded by scrub willows. The place looked unreachable from the cliffs above, and we felt safe enough to light a fire for cooking. Captain Moxley decided we should send out a picket just in case, and Private Jackson was detailed. It turned out that he was the safest of all of us, because as soon as it got dark the Indians started shooting into the camp aiming at the fire, and hoping to hit one of us.
"Damn," Billings tried to kick sand into the embers, but the Indians had the range now, and every once in a while a shot would plow up the soil where the fire light still glowed. No one was hit, but nobody slept either. Moxley moved us out at first light, shoving off into the current of a river covered in mist. We never did see our tormentors, but we knew they were up there.
The canyon walls narrowed into sheer sheets of red sandstone that seemed to reach upward forever, and the river couldn't have been more than twenty-five yards across. We were speeding along at a fine clip, dozing at the oars, almost lulled to sleep by the deep throated murmuring of the water when something splashed behind us. We looked up we saw the Indians again; Sergeant Billings was the first to realize what was happening. "They're dropping rocks on us!" he shouted, and pointed as another stone missile arced out from the top of the canyon toward us. There was nothing we could do; Moxley swung the tiller from side to side trying to make the heavy boat veer, but the rock landed close on the starboard side sending a plume of gritty red water geysering over us. The Indians pointed, and their laughter echoed through the canyon.
The boat yawed as someone stood up behind me, "Gawd durn cowards!" I heard a rifle lock click.
"Richards! Hold your fire!" Moxley shouted.
"Yessir." Richards was clearly disgusted as he lowered the weapon and dropped it to the deck. Ka-POW!
I felt a hot wind blow past my ear, and Captain Moxley suddenly sprouted a red blossom at the base of his throat, and he tumbled over the boat's stern into the water. Time seemed to stop, and the Captain's body floated in a slow arc around the side of the boat, trailing a spreading red stain.
"Jeezus, Rich, you kilt him!" Jackson gasped.
"It was an accident!" Richards said. "The gun just went off!"
Sergeant Billings tried to fish the body out of the river, but it had already floated beyond our reach. Up on the cliff the Indians laughed, and yelling something in Spanish that we couldn't make out because the murmur of the river was rapidly changing to a dull roar. We realized that we were heading into a stretch of really bad water, and tried to pull for the bank, but with no one to steer all we did was make things worse. Billings grabbed the tiller just as we went over what seemed to be at least a ten-foot drop.
The roaring river below churned over a vast collection of rocks and logs. The boat hit hard, and there was a cracking noise from somewhere underneath. I could hear Billings cursing, calling for us to pull. Jackson and I were still at our oars, so we kept trying to stroke, sometimes hitting rocks, and sometimes paddling water. Spray soaked us, and then the boat struck something hard that flipped the entire craft up on its side. As we twisted in our seats I saw Richards launched into the air, his windmilling arms searching for a support that wasn't there, and then the red water closed around him, and he was gone.
The current twisted us around, and now we were heading through the rapids backwards. Jackson was praying while the sergeant tried desperately to get the boat pointed in the right direction again. I stopped trying to row, and just held on as the craft bucked and careened down the river. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the wild ride was over, and the river quieted as we floated out of the maelstrom. Billings slumped over the shattered tiller, while Jackson looked stupidly at his own split oar. I released my death grip on my own oar and leaned over the gunwale and was sick. After my stomach quit heaving, I settled down on the bench again, and that was when I noticed the water swirling around my ankles.
"We need to bail that out," Billings said.
"I need to feel dirt under my feet again," Jackson muttered.
Between the three of us we managed to get the boat beached on the far shore. We stumbled onto the sand like castaways on a desert isle. "I wonder what happened to Rich?" Jackson said.
"He's drowned, nobody could go through that alive," Billings answered as he dropped to the earth.
"We did," Jackson pointed out.
"Well, you're welcome to go back and look for 'im," the sergeant replied without looking up.
"What happens now?" I asked quietly.
The two ex-confederate soldiers looked at each other, and then back at me. "What do you mean, Riley?" the sergeant asked, as he took off his shirt to wring it out.
I leaned back on the sand, "I was wondering . . . do we really have to finish this trip?" I asked casually. The two troopers looked at each other, and I continued. "There's a hundred thousand gold dollars in those sacks. The war has been over for quite a while, and I hear Sibley is soldiering for the Mexicans now. IF you make it to Mexico City with the money, how much of it are you going to be allowed to keep?" I got up then, and started examining the boat for damage, leaving them to work matters out for themselves.
I found that although the vessel was well built, the last set of rapids had dealt some serious blows to it. There was a lot of water inside the hull, and I figured that was the first priority to take care of. I had just removed a bundle from under the rear seat to a safer location in the cabin, and was searching for a pot large enough to use as a bailing tool when I heard raised voices.
"I say we split, and go our separate ways!" yelled Jackson.
"We should at least go to Yuma, and see if anyone is waiting for us there!" Sergeant Billings retorted.
"And what then?" Jackson replied. "Give it all up to someone else?" He stomped back and forth in his fury. "Billings, we fought that war longer than anyone else! Now it's over! Let's take something for ourselves!"
"Gentleman," I interceded, "before you think too much on dividing things up we need to get out of these canyons, and that means repairs to the boat I'm afraid . . . " That quieted both men down; we were able to bail out the vessel, and staunch several sprung boards with green willow sticks and canvas, but without any tar that was all we could do.
After two days work, we were able to resume our journey. We had lost a lot of equipment in the great rapids behind us, and much of our supplies had gotten wet. Now we were in a bit of a race to reach Yuma before our food ran out. We had saved two oars, and managed to make a new tiller out of the second bench. Billings guided the boat while Jackson and I took turns rowing and bailing. The current continued to be strong, and the river narrow; and I prayed that there wouldn't be anymore rapids. We saw no more of the Indians; I suppose they figured we were drowned.
We floated down the river like that for a long time. The days sort of ran together as we fretted, and the boat twisted and groaned its way through the stretches of rough water. Our makeshift rudder worked well enough in quiet water, but for the rapids it was totally inadequate. We finally stopped rowing all together; and just tried to keep the boat bailed out. Billings and Jackson worked together, but there was a stiffness in their attitude toward one another that hadn't been there before the Captain's death. Perhaps I was partially the cause of this awkwardness since I was a constant reminder to them of the decision they needed to make; should they remain true to a lost cause, or surrender to their own desires for the first time in a decade?
Things came to a head when we finally drifted out of the canyon country into the flatter land beyond. We had drawn the boat up on a sand beach, and we were cooking a prairie grouse that Jackson had caught. The sun was well down, and the night was coming on. "Are we going to set a watch?" I asked, as I added a stick to the fire.
"I suppose so," Billings replied. "You want to take first watch Jackson?"
Billings looked at the man, "What do ya mean 'No'? There's Indians out there man . . . "
"And there's damn all we are going to do about it if they come!" Jackson growled as he bit into a piece of the bird. "We've lost the rifles in the river; I haven't seen the shotgun since before the captain was kilt. All we got is our pistols, and they haven't been cleaned or oiled since I don't know when." He tossed the bones in the fire. "I say get some sleep, and be damned to anything that's out there!"
Billings looked at the fire for a moment, and then sighed, "Private Jackson, you will take first watch or you will be disciplined," he said slowly.
Jackson said something unprintable, and stood up. "I'm not in your army anymore, Billings. Tomorrow I'm taking a share of that gold and I'm leaving."
"If you do, I'll kill you. We got a job to do," Billings answered.
"No, we don't, not anymore." The private walked over to the boat and snuggled down inside her.
Billings looked at me, "What about you Riley?"
"What about me?" I answered.
"Are you with him or . . . " he paused.
"Moxley said I could leave when we made it to Yuma."
"Moxely's dead. I figure we're on our own here," he said, and poked the fire.
"But you're going to shoot him if he tries to leave tomorrow."
"Yes. We need to stay together; this desert will kill him slowly if the Indians don't find him first."
"I'm a townie, I never spent too much time roughing it. What you say is good enough for me," I allowed. That seemed to settle matters for the night anyway. But when we woke from our exhausted sleep in the morning, Private Jackson and two sacks of the gold were missing.
"The trails plain enough," I pointed out some tracks, "are you going after him?"
Billings thought for a moment. "No, he's made his bed; he'll have to lie in it."
"What's out there?" I asked.
"Mexicans if he's lucky, Apaches if he isn't . . . either way, he's a dead man." The ex-sergeant started loading the boat. With no one to row, we just drifted with the current. I caught some fish with a pocket line I found in the cabin, but they tasted muddy, and what wouldn't after living in that silt-filled water? Billings watched the left bank for the Gila River. He said that would mean we were getting close to Yuma. "We're supposed to meet our guides into Mexico there," he said. "You'll be able to go wherever you want then, Riley."
I agreed. We spotted a small fire on the right bank just as we were thinking we had missed the rendezvous. There were three Mexicans, and one Anglo sitting around a camp, they walked down to the water's edge, "Campbell?" Billings called out.
"Moxley?" Someone called back. After we got the boat to shore there were a lot of explanations, and sighs. We had coffee with our dinner for the first time in a week, and unloaded the gold. That was when the Mexicans tried to rob us.
Campbell and Billings were sitting by the fire swapping stories while I was rummaging in the boat unwrapping a bundle I had stowed in the cabin when the Mexicans made their move. They didn't say a word; they just pulled their guns, and started shooting. Billings was killed outright, but Campbell got his gun out, and shot one of the attackers before toppling over. The remaining two Mexicans turned toward me, "Hey Gringo, out of the boat now. We let you start running before we shoot," one said, and the other man laughed.
"No thanks," I replied, and leveled the Captains shotgun over the gunwale before squeezing both triggers. I made sure they were dead before I checked on Campbell and Billings. The sergeant was gone, but Campbell was still alive. I kneeled in the sand beside him, and he stared at me.
"Who're . . . you?" he choked out.
"Riley," I shrugged.
"Well, Riley . . . looks like you . . . win,"
I reloaded the shotgun, and looked around, "There's nobody expecting this gold, is there?" I asked.
He smiled, "No . . . "
"You were going to double cross Moxley?"
"Moxley . . . would've insisted . . . we haul it to Mexico City." Blood started seeping from around the man's mouth.
"I'll see it's put to good use," I told him, but he was gone, and now I was a rich man.