Sun Mountain: A Comstock Novel (Comstock Novels)

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9780812580112: Sun Mountain: A Comstock Novel (Comstock Novels)
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"There had never been a place like the Comstock or a city like Virginia or a gathering of brilliant men such as those who assembled there." So writes Henry Stoddard in Richard Wheeler's unforgettable novel-as-memoir of Virginia City, the most spectacular boomtown ever seen in the West.

Drawn to fabled Virginia City and its Comstock Lode in the early 1860s, journalist Henry Stoddard brushed shoulders with mining titans, speculators, and bankers -the people who built fortunes from the amazing mines--as well as the men who went down into the bowels of the earth to wrest the riches from it, working in the hellish heat for $4 a week
Also among Stoddard's acquaintances was a young Missourian named Sam Clemens, who prospered in Virginia City as a reporter for the Enterprise and would later transform himself into Mark Twain

Henry Stoddard is fictional; the story, however, is true, perhaps the most astonishing true story of the American West.

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About the Author:

Richard S. Wheeler has written over fifty novels and several short stories. He has won four Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement in the field of western literature.

He lives in the literary and film community of Livingston, Montana, and is married to Professor Sue Hart, of Montana State University-Billings. Before turning to fiction he was a newsman and book editor. He has raised horses and been a wrangler at an Arizona dude ranch.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1
 
 
January 1, 1900
 
I supposed I would not live to see this day or enter this new century. Not many men reach the age of sixty-one, especially those in my profession, who commonly drink themselves to death.
I will celebrate this passage to the twentieth century by writing about my life in the nineteenth. I have thought long about this: Most men's lives aren't worth writing about, and I have wondered whether mine is. Has it been so extraordinary, or filled with achievement, or unusual that I should presume upon the patience of a reader and unburden myself of a thousand memories, some of them painful?
I think so. And now, on this virgin day of a virgin century, I am quite sure of it. It is not only that I have lived an amazing life but also that I have witnessed amazing events and met amazing men and women. With the sun of a new era shining on me, I wish to make account of all this before my own sun sets and all these matters are lost in the eternal darkness. So bear with me, reader. I must needs pen a few words about who I am in order to lay the foundations, so to speak, of this memoir.
I was christened Henry Jackson Stoddard, having been born in 1838 in Zanesville, Ohio. But I have no recollection of that place, because my parents soon removed to Platte-ville, Wisconsin, which is where I grew up. Platteville was a good place to mature. It nestled serenely in upland country dominated by great forested ridges, well-watered and verdant valleys dotted with farmsteads, and a number of lead mines worked largely by Cornishmen. Those lead mines were important to me and did much to settle my fate, though as a happy and comfortable child I was scarcely aware of them or that I lived in a mining district, one of very few in the Badger State.
I wanted for nothing. My father, William Squires Stoddard, was a circuit court judge and an eminent citizen of the new town. My mother, Mary Jackson Stoddard, was healthy, beautiful, and a worthy consort of my father. I had an older sister and two younger brothers, so was lost in the middle of the deck. I well remember the spacious white clapboard home, guarded by towering elms, where I grew up. On three sides a great veranda shaded its downstairs windows from the sun. It seemed a large place to a boy, larger than it would look to an old man. Judge Stoddard was neither rich nor poor. He owned two mercantile buildings and three homes, and two farms, which he rented. Before he became a judge, he practiced law, drawing much of his business from those lead-mining companies in that area.
I was a perfectly ordinary youth, lost in the middle, neither ambitious nor lacking industry. Life went by comfortably, and apart from a bout with scarlet fever and another with measles, and the death of my youngest brother, James, from diphtheria, I scarcely remarked my passages from child to adolescent and from adolescent to awkward youth and maturity. At that point, my life was totally unremarkable. The firm and amiable hand of my father steered me from trouble, and that sufficed, except for the time I got into a little difficulty one Halloween and another time when I was sparking Lizette--well, there are things, reader, that I will not delve into even though I intend this to be an honest and unsparing account of an unusual life.
We were Methodists, garden variety in every respect, and I inhaled piety just as easily as I had absorbed iambic pentameter and the tragedies of Shakespeare. There was nothing remarkable about my religion, just as there was nothing else remarkable about Judge Stoddard's second-born.
If I was troubled by anything as my body filled into manhood, it was simply that I hadn't the foggiest idea of what to do with my life. Worse, I didn't know what life was about, why I had been set upon the earth, what I should do for a living or vocation. I was approaching the time when I was expected to acquire a vocation, support myself, cleave from my parents, and begin my own household, and yet I hung back, not from fear, but from bewilderment. To select one vocation, such as law or accounting, was to foreclose the others. To select one sweetheart was to abandon all hope of finding someone better.
This estate governed my adolescence, and as I approached the conclusion of my normal schooling it grew acute. It was compounded by the myriad self-doubts and agonies that are the normal lot of adolescents, and every pimple was proof positive that I was doomed to a life of misery and rejection.
In those benign days in the sheltered valleys of the young state of Wisconsin, I was scarcely aware of the storm clouds gathering over the nation. Up in Ripon, northeast of our home, some radical young men had grown weary of Whigs and Democrats and formed a new party they called Republican--an apt name in a nation organized as a republic. But what these fellows wanted first and foremost was the abolition of slavery, and apparently a lot of other decent folk thought the same way, because the new party swept the North and the talk of conflict grew hotter and hotter.
I was aware of all this--Judge Stoddard had become a stalwart of the new party--but somehow it failed to touch me. I remained a young man desultorily searching for a life, for meaning, for anything that might make my passage on earth momentous. But it never came.
"Henry," my father said one day, "it is time for you to lay your foundations. I haven't heard a word from you about what lies ahead. May I suggest college?"
I had always known I would go to college; my father was well able to send me. I acceded at once, the paternal will still operating upon me, and selected Beloit rather than the state school in Madison. They were equidistant, but I rather thought that Beloit had the prouder credentials and was renowned for its commodious and gracious campus.
Reader, I must hasten this story along. I matriculated at Beloit and spent a year without majoring in anything, although I did gravitate toward English courses, having an easy way with words. But that was laziness. Words came readily to mind, so words became my study. Even so, I was far from the head of the class and just as far from its straggling rear guard. Once again, Henry Jackson Stoddard was caught in the middle. And so the term passed and I knew no more about what I should do with my life than I had before I started it. Beloit was a civilized place, only a two-day stagecoach ride from Platteville, and life there demanded nothing of me.
The year passed, and another, and part of a third, and that coarse fellow Lincoln was elected president, and suddenly war loomed. I had become an upperclassman with no more notion of what to do with my life than when I had started. Maybe less, because education was introducing me to possibilities and the genial faculty was introducing me to society, as was the custom in those days, and the more options that opened up to me, the less certain I became about what to do with myself.
I won't belabor this narrative with all that happened in Washington City, Mr. Lincoln's efforts to hold the Union together, South Carolina's secession, followed by the rest Better heads than mine have recorded it all. Suffice it to say that during my third year of wandering through academe the nation went to war. There, around Platteville, shot towers arose, and the North looked upon the Wisconsin lead mines as a principal source of its ammunition.
Now from this perspective, early in a new century, I am inclined to look sternly upon that youth, Henry Jackson Stoddard, and tax him with the accusation that he calculated a way to evade the war. But on reflection, I've concluded that would be neither kind nor true. Yes, the young man was well aware that all that exploding powder and flying lead could puncture his fragile flesh and he, in turn, might inflict mortal wounds upon the flesh of other young men he really had no quarrel with--which repelled him. And it could be argued that young Stoddard was a coward escaping his duty to his country, saving his precious hide, and all that.
But I won't say it. I do remember that college had become unbearable and a lust for excitement, for meaning, for purpose, was percolating through me. Of course, the war itself might have served to stir life's juices, but my mind was drifting in other directions, namely, what lay beyond the Great American Desert, and, in particular, an arid mountain slope a little east of the Sierras where any man with wits could get rich. In short, I had been absorbing the sensational news of the Comstock Lode, its incalculable mountains of gold and silver ore, the wildness of its inhabitants, its excitements and daily disasters, its madness and joy. Virginia City and its neighbor, Gold Hill, were seducing that young man. I refer to him in the third person because truly he was not the same as the present writer, nothing more than a chrysalis of the man to come.
I had learned about all this from the Cornish miners in my district, who spun tales of incredible bonanzas, opportunity, and the one-chance-in-a-lifetime trip west. Over two hundred of them abandoned the Wisconsin lead mines and headed west, and many of them I knew by name.
"She's a place ought like any on airth, boyo," said my friend Tim Penrose. "Me and t'others, we're packing her up. They pay four dollars a day to a good man. Four dollars!"
I resolved to go. Maybe life in the Far West would give me some clue about why I was set upon the earth, why I was alive, what I might do, and what I might wish to become. Up until that hour, I had no notion at all of the destiny of Henry Stoddard and not even a dream or a hope. I think if my father had insisted I study law, I would now be a barrister. Or if my mother had told me to become a schoolmaster, I might now be conjugating verbs upon a slate board.
I knew that persuading the judge would not be easy. I did not wish to earn or work my way west, but to ride in an overland stagecoach to the fabled bonanza. And that took money. I make no apology for this. I had grown up in comfort, and transporting myself by the easiest means was simply the expected thing. And yet if my sole recourse was to walk or work my way out there, I would have done that. Once the idea took hold in my skull, it rooted there. It was, really, the first time in my tender life that I had seriously wanted anything.
And this I conveyed to the judge one June evening shortly after I had returned from Beloit, bearing yet another modest report card, consisting largely of Cs and one B. He listened sharply, his rheumy eyes boring into me the way they burned into witnesses before his court, and I knew I was on trial.
I expected rebuke. The judge would tell me it would be a fool's mission, folly, madness, and, in any case, my duty belonged with the Union in its grave crisis.
But he didn't. Instead, he stood, walked to the mullioned window, peered out across the valley to the verdant wooded slopes in spring dress, stared upon that tree-girt haven of comfort and peace and abundance, that land of milk and honey, of shrewd yeomen farmers, devoutly Methodist Cornish miners, settled village life--and said yes.
"You need to find yourself," he said. "I've been watching you. I've been waiting for you to make a move."
There was a proviso. He would give me the exact amount required to put me through my last year at Beloit--tuition, room, and board--and that would be the end of his largesse. If I wished to finish college, I could do so. If I wished to go west, I could do that. From that moment on, I would be on my own.
I calculated swiftly. The benefaction would get me to Virginia City with some to spare.
"I will go," I told him.
He nodded, and I detected a skeptical glint in his eye.
My mother cried. My sister and brother looked solemn.
I took the cash in a mixture intended to assure its safety: some in greenbacks sewn into my greatcoat, some in gold, which I intended to hide upon my person, some in a letter of credit upon the State Bank of Platteville.
Within a fortnight I was ready, and bidding my mother and father good-bye, and promising to write regularly, I boarded a mud wagon for Dubuque, Iowa, there to catch a Mississippi paddle wheeler to Saint Louis, there to transfer to another that would take me to Council Bluffs, and there to board a coach that would, eventually, deposit me not far from the foot of Sun Mountain and the Comstock. For the first time in my life, unbearable excitement coursed through my young body and soul.
I doubted that I would ever see my family again-and that proved to be the case.
 
Copyright © 1999 by Richard S. Wheeler

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