It was an unusually hot day in late October 1901 when Panamint Pete arrived in Ballarat. It was so hot that the vultures refused to fly, preferring to waddle about until they found a carcass, at which they listlessly picked. The tumbleweed barely budged for lack of any kind of wind.
Pete came from the mountain range that gave him his name, which lay just east of Ballarat. He was one of those men who seemed to have been born old, for one could not picture him as ever having been young. His face had more furrows than a newly plowed field, he was missing half his teeth and what remained of his hair was grayer than Jeb Stuart’s backside. He came with a mule laden with two sacks full of gold nuggets the size of a big man’s fist. He headed straight for the assayer’s office, where the gold was weighed. The value was assessed at eight thousand dollars.
With his newfound wealth, Panamint Pete made his way to one of the town’s seven saloons. There
he settled in for a spell, ordering a bottle of whiskey and some food. When asked, he refused to join a game of poker, for he was not a gambling man. He continued to sit, taking in the atmosphere and listening to an out-of-tune piano being played by a man with only six fingers.
Every community has its undesirables, and Ballarat was no exception. A couple of rapscallions named Mojave Jim and Dan Cranston were about as low as they come. The former was a half-breed; long, lanky, and not the sharpest spine on the cactus. The latter was on the stocky side and so shifty that no two raindrops ever hit him on the same spot. Neither one had ever done an honest day’s work, nor even knew the meaning of the expression. They observed Panamint Pete enter the assayer’s office with those bulging sacks and emerge with them empty, tucked in his jeans pocket.
“Looks like that ol’ timer has made hisself a killin’,” Jim said.
“Could be, could be,” Cranston replied, rubbing his scraggly chin.
“Shall we find out?” Jim asked.
“I’m right behind ya,” Dan answered as they followed Pete into the saloon.
They took a table near Pete’s and ordered a couple of beers. The two watched greedily as the prospector partook of a steak and potatoes dinner very slowly, savoring every mouthful. The pair tried not to be obvious, but when Pete pulled out his wad of cash to pay for his fare, their eyes grew as big as saucers. They looked at each other, failing to notice that the old man was watching them out of the corner of his eye. Panamint Pete grinned slightly as he got up to leave.
From the saloon the prospector crossed the street to a hotel, where he rented a room and had a nice, warm bath. The next morning he went to the barbershop for a shave and a haircut. While he was there, Mojave Jim spotted him and ran to get Cranston.
Finding him outside the post office, Jim grabbed his arm and pointed towards the barber’s.
“Thet ol’ man’s gittin’ a shave. I think he may be fixin’ to go back to his digs soon.”
Cranston’s beady eyes, which continually darted about, settled on his partner for a moment.
“We’ll need horses if we’re going to follow him. Do you have any money?”
“Not a plug nickel.”
“Alright then, we’ll steal us a couple. But first let’s see in which direction he heads fer.”
As they approached the barbershop, Panamint Pete emerged, feeling his clean-shaven jaw. He went into the general store next, where he asked for some salt and black pepper.
“Anything else, mister?” asked the proprietor.
“Eh, mebbe some oregano, and some parsley. Ya got any parsley?”
“Sure, how much would you like?”
“Oh, about a dozen sprigs.”
“No bacon or vegetables?”
“Nope…wait a minute – almost fergot – lemme have six onions.”
The storekeeper picked half a dozen onions from a barrel.
“Thankee, thet should do it. What do I owe ya?” Paying for his purchase, the prospector then went to the livery stable, where he bought a fine bay mare and some tack. He walked the animal out into the street, looked about, and eased himself atop his new mount. The day was conside- rably cooler than the previous one, more in line of what late October weather should be. Pete set his horse at a trot and headed east.
Noting the latter fact, Dan and Jim searched for horses that could be easily stolen. They found two at the end of a hitching post outside one of the saloons. Biding their time, they waited until Panamint Pete was just a speck on the horizon. Then the pair quickly unhitched the horses, leapt onto the saddles and set off in pursuit of the old timer.
It was about a two-hour ride to Pete’s shack at the foot of Telescope Peak. The prospector maintained his horse’s pace, enjoying the view as he softly whistled “Oh, Susanna”. Before long, he reached his destination, dismounted, and led his horse to the water trough. He undid his saddlebags, looked about, took a deep breath, and entered his shack.
Meanwhile, the two miscreants kept well behind their prey, since most of the distance was open country.
“D’ya think the ol’ man has more of them nuggets in his shack?” wondered Mojave Jim.
“Don’t rightly know, Jim,” Dan replied, “if not, then he’s probably found a rich lode someairs.”
“Well, what if’n he don’t?”
“ There’s still the rest a thet wad and thet new horse a his – should fetch a good price.”
“Right now I jest hope he’s got some vittles; ah’m hungry.”
Reaching Pete’s shack just as twilight was settling in, Mojave Jim and Dan Cranston dismounted and disappeared into it.
Back in Ballarat that evening, the two victims of the horse thieves were informing the sheriff of their loss.
“We got ourselves a witness to the theft, sheriff,” said one of them, as he pulled an old Hopi man forward by the arm. “Tell the sheriff whatcha seen, Naha.”
The old man spoke slowly: “I see Mojave Jim and Cranston take two horses and ride east.” He swung his arm in that direction.
Sheriff Bill Tyler knew better than to question the veracity of a Hopi. “Alright, Zeke, deputize these two men and we’ll get goin’ first thing in the mornin’.” Zeke, his deputy, did as ordered.
The next day the lawman borrowed two horses from the livery stable for the robbery victims and the party headed east.
The trail was easy to follow, for the earth in that area was just soft enough to retain hoof prints. The sun was reaching its zenith as the posse arrived at Panamint Pete’s abode, where they found the stolen mounts.
“You fellers wait here in case they get past me,” Tyler said after he dismounted. He drew his gun and walked slowly up to the door.
Opening the door carefully, the lawman entered the shack and found Panamint Pete in a chair leaning against a wall, picking his teeth with a jack-knife.
“Howdy, sheriff! What can I do fer ya?” Pete asked.
“There are two stolen horses outside. I’m lookin’ for the men who took ’em,” Tyler replied as he holstered his weapon.
“Ya must mean those two fellers I had fer dinner last night.”
“You made dinner for them?”
“Didn’t say thet.”
A puzzled look appeared on Tyler’s face.
“I said I had them fer dinner.”
The sheriff’s jaw dropped.
“Yup. I et ’em.” Pete folded his knife and threw it on the table in front of him.
“You ate those two men?”
“Well, not entirely. I took a sample a each. The leftovers is out in mah smokehouse. The tall one was kinda stringy, but the other feller was downright tasty; had jest enough fat on him. And I got a real nice broth from their marrow.”
“How could you eat two human beings?” asked Tyler, in disbelief.
Pete’s face took on an eerily wistful expression as he leaned forward. “When I was a young ’un, I was in a sitcheeation where I had to eat human flesh or die. After a while I found I kinda liked it. Ever now ’n then I git a hankerin’ fer it. Those two fellers jest happened along at the right time – fer me, thet is.” Pete tilted his head back and let out a loud guffaw. When he finished laughing at his own joke, Pete’s mien suddenly became that of a hungry wolf. Staring fixedly at Sheriff Tyler, he leaned forward menacingly.
The lawman reached for his gun, bur Pete was quicker; he grabbed a double-barreled shotgun next to his chair and trained it on Tyler.
“Jest drop yer piece on the floor there.”
The sheriff obeyed and wished he’d brought his posse in with him.
“Now set yerself quiet in thet there corner,” Pete ordered, motioning with his weapon. “By the by, my hankerin’s still with me. With winter a-comin’, ah’m a-gonna need a goodly supply a meat.”
He walked slowly over to the window, keeping his shotgun pointed at his prisoner as he said: “Ya mighta heerd about mah folks – mah real name’s George and mah pappy’s name was Jacob - Jacob Donner.”
Pushing the curtain aside with his free hand, he peered outside.
“I see ya brought some friends,” Panamint Pete said, licking his lips.
©2011 by Philip Leibfried
Philip Leibfried resides in New York City’s East Village. A graduate of Pace College, he has authored and co-authored five books on film history. He has also been published on talesofold,org and fiction365.com.