WHERE TWO RIVERS MEET ANTHOLOGY
Modern Tales of California's Gold Rush Country
As Happy As Sutter
Part 1: That Eureka Moment
I’m telling this story to let you know how happy I am. Last fall, I found gold on my land. Not just a few flakes which anyone can pan out of a stream on a Sunday’s outing, but an amount so significant that I left my job selling insurance. I spend my days solely searching for more gold. If the market place goes higher, I probably will be a millionaire. I’m not yet, and I’m not complaining. As I write this, the price is on the rise, and this makes me even happier.
Well, enough of the money side of this. Let me tell you how I literally stumbled upon the first nuggets. Some might call my find an accident. Yet, I have observed several coincidences that I believe make my discovery, my fate—a divine design, if you will, and therein also lies my happiness.
It was a Saturday morning, one of those finely tempered mornings that make you believe there must be a Creator up there. My land is located on a bend in the Mountbank Creek. The stream curves around a small meadow about two-acres wide. My house sits overlooking the flatland and the creek. Behind the home stand aspens and elms, a wonderful and natural, foresty glade. As the sun rises over the mountain and sets over the house, light continually plays on and through the striking yellow, orange and red leaves. Several liquid-ambers I planted myself supplement this dazzling scene.
I was outside that morning, admiring the trees, feeling the solid, God-given land under my feet and letting my body tingle in the crisp morning air. Across the road, I could see my good friend and neighbor, George Barton, at his kitchen window. Smoke curled from the chimney. You could almost smell the coffee brewing over there. He waved at me, and I, down near the road by the creek, waved back, lifting my coffee cup in the air as a salute. I tell you, without finding gold that day, I was a happy man. My neighbors were so good and near, and my wife and son slept peacefully in a wonderful two-story, clapboard-sided home of my own design.
My son, Richie, collects beer and soda cans. He smashes them, and when he fills several large trash bags, brings them to the recycling center. An enterprising teenager. He’s trying to earn his way to college—and he’ll do it! I keep an eye out for cans, and that day spotted one bobbing in the water. People driving down our road toss them out of their cars, a constant problem anywhere and certainly one which most irks us residents of the Gold Rush Country here in California. We get a lot of tourists pouring down our roads and through our quiet hamlets in search of the Old West—that old timey weekend experience. Like ants they come. They toss litter out of their car windows, and when they find some nice soft spot of land, they’ll stop, make a picnic and leave even more trash. A couple of months later, they’re back with a real estate agent, buying up property and becoming your new, best friend and neighbor. Most of the people along our road are such city transplants. I forgive ‘em for it.
As I recall, I had on a good pair of Florsheim shoes that morning, not the kind of shoe you wear to traipse in around the woods, but sure-soled enough to get me down to the creek. Imagine! Because of the shoes, I’d nearly not retrieved that can, but I wanted to do something for my son that morning. The can floated midstream in the clear, gurgling water. And here’s the first coincidence: It was an Oly Gold!
Trying to pick up the can, I stepped on a small, dark gray rock with moss growing on the sides. The rock looked sturdy; however, when I put my foot down, it tipped over. I got the can, but my right foot slipped into the water. As I shook off the wet shoe, I glanced down into the creek where the overturned rock had been. Dirty water swirled over the disturbed creek bed. As the turbidity cleared, the water fairly glowed. I peered down, surprised at the spectacle, and saw gold nuggets scattered on the creek bottom. It was an uncanny iridescence, strange and marvelous, eerie in a way like pictures you see in an overdone Bible of the shining ark being carried by the Israelites.
“My God,” I remembered crying out. “Gold!”
I dropped the can and was down on my knees immediately—no thought for the nice corduroy trousers I had on—plucking seven nuggets out of the stream before they might disappear in the muck. I cupped the gold in my hand, trembling suddenly. You read about others finding gold coins or buried treasure, but to find gold in its raw, natural state is something with meaning, having force and power. And I had done it!
I guess George had seen me slip or heard my cry, for he was out on his decking, calling after me, asking if I were okay. I jumped up quickly and wondered if he’d seen what I had found or would notice me holding the nuggets. I closed my fingers over the gold for fear of its yellow brilliance radiating up to him. He wanted to come down, yet I declined the offer, waved him off, and immediately hurried back to the house. My wife and son were still in their beds. Saturday mornings are for sleep, those two say. Well, I coined a new phrase that day: The early bird gets the gold!
I tiptoed into the kitchen and placed the nuggets on my wife’s Weight Watchers food scale. They weighed in at 10 ounces. I leaned against the counter and stared at the scale. I had to touch the gold several times before I convinced myself it was real. Two nuggets were the size of round, flat pajama buttons. The other five looked like golden potatoes with little black dimples. I even bit one to make sure it wouldn’t fall apart. This was no fool’s gold—no I knew then from the feel and taste of it. James Marshall must have felt this way all those years ago, kneeling in the icy waters of that Coloma mill trace on the American River. And John Sutter, too. I was as happy a man as he must have been.
Part II: A Boot Full of Gold
Of course, the next thing I did after that fall morning when I plucked those first seven, lucky nuggets from the creek was look up the price of gold. Though I had not kept up with its current status, I was aware the metal had been on a roller coaster ride in previous years. From underneath my eaten grapefruit half and scraps of breakfast toast in the trash where I had thrown it, I had to dig out the weekly Ledger. Though the Business page was a bit soaked, I found the list for precious metals. The latest price listed was for Tuesday, Oct. 8. It stood at $1,508.85. Calculating the difference in troy weight, there on that scale lay more than $10,000—and more, maybe, for solid nuggets of unusual size can bring higher prices on the retail market.
Now the quandary: Should I wake my wife, Barbara, and tell her the news, or wait and return to the stream to investigate—see if more gold waited for me—or if this find were merely a fluke. I thought, why get her all excited? That would be so unfair. So, I quietly changed into my Levis and boots. In the garage, I found a shovel and a gold pan I’d bought for Richie several years before, but I suddenly was worried about looking too conspicuous to George across the road and passersby, so I set the pan aside and grabbed a bucket. I would say, if asked, that I needed gravel for a drainage ditch.
The morning sunlight filtered through the golden-leaved trees, creating a dazzling atmosphere. What a natural wonder, I thought, as I returned to the stream and that moss-covered rock. God was certainly smiling down on me that day! Just poking around, I found a dozen more nuggets. Upstream, there were even more. By the time an hour had passed, the bottom of the bucket was covered with gold. It was getting toward nine-thirty then. More traffic moved up and down the road, which passed right next to the creek. I fretted over attracting attention, lest someone stop or slow down and see what I was really doing. So, I quit and rushed back to the house. I transferred the nuggets into an empty jumbo-sized Planters Peanuts can that I’d been saving for nuts and bolts. Upstairs, I placed the can in the back of the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet in the den, where I had stashed my first find. I had wanted to weigh this new collection, but Richie was in the kitchen then making breakfast and rummaging in the garbage for that week’s Ledger—he’d made the top of the Sports page, a photo of him winning a cross country track meet. What a good boy!
Until I was exactly sure what I had, I surmised that to tell Richie, too, would be unfair. Best I learn that what I found was really gold and its actual value before getting someone all sweaty with excitement. I could afford the disappointment, not Richie or Barbara. They were the kind who, if you promised to take them out to fancy dinner or skiing or on a nice vacation and then had to cancel (when hasn’t this happened?), grew sullen, or cried a lot, or sulked around the house—miserable for hours afterward. I am made of sterner stuff.
Obviously the next step would take more thought, so I went back to the den, sat down to consider my options. I could return to the stream and remove as much gold as I could find—but to do so in broad daylight had risks. Richie didn’t have a soccer match that day (he’s quite involved!) and would be wondering what I was up to—might even want to lend me a hand. My wife, however, had a date to play golf. He could go with her to caddy, but that would extra require arm-twisting. I decided it best to leave the stream alone until tomorrow when they went to church. Maybe, I’d even suggest that they attend the seven-thirty service, and this way I could get a super-early start. For sure, Monday morning, I’d place the gold in my safety deposit box at the bank.
The real problem, I figured, would be finding a reputable and trusted jeweler who could analyze the ore and give me an idea of its price. Then, I worried that word might leak out that I’d found gold on my property. No doubt the jeweler would be inquisitive. A horde of snoopy reporters might wind up wading in my creek. Also, once I knew the price, I’d have to decide to sell or wait and gamble that the world market would improve. These were my thoughts at the time.
My work in the creek had tired me. I fell asleep in the chair. Barbara woke me before leaving to play golf and wanted some money, but I told her I had none. Richie was in the garage at the time fixing a junked Honda motorbike I’d brought home for him a week before. A friend at the office was cleaning out his garage and gave it to me. I guessed Richie would get a kick out of the thing—kids always do, especially when they had to fix them up by themselves. He came bounding up the stairs into the den, out of breath.
“Hey Dad, I only need one more part for the bike—would you take me to town?”
Suddenly, new options fell into my lap. If I took him to our little town of Two Rivers, I could visit the jeweler while Richie was busy in the auto parts store. On the other hand, if he went to town by himself, I’d have enough time to weigh my new find of gold and maybe unobtrusively check the creek for more. A brilliant plan! Except my son didn’t have his driver’s license yet—he’s only fifteen—though I’d taught him how to drive and he did relatively well. Here would be another kick for the kid—driving to Two Rivers on his own.
“Tell you what,” I had said, reaching for my keys. “You can go by yourself."
I handed him the set. He was ecstatic. The glee in the boy’s bright eyes is the only reward for fatherhood I need. There was happiness, gratitude, and pride, too, the pride of knowing his dad trusted him—even respected him as a man. He washed his hands and departed in ten minutes. I even gave him a couple of bucks for lunch at Jeremy’s River Eats cafe.
Once they left the house, I spent a half hour carefully weighing all of the gold, which I figured amounted to thirty-four ounces in troy weight or, conservatively, more than $51,000. After lunch, I headed for the creek again and inconspicuously began kicking my boot through the gravel, which I found to be littered with the precious metal. My heart beat so fast that I had to sit down creek-side and take off my boots to cool my feet in the water. From my sparse knowledge of geology, I knew the source had to be nearby—maybe even on my property since so much gold was sprinkled about. What a marvel is nature to supply mankind with such bounty!
The day had turned into one of those enchanted Indian summer afternoons, a scene of mesmerizing beauty—all the foliage backlit by the sun so that on close study you could trace the individual veins of the tree leaves. I started walking barefoot upstream, wading in the water, boots in hand. Falling leaves had drifted into the stream and floated like little boats along the currents. Every so often, I’d pause and play my big toe through the gravel on the creek bottom. After a few flicks, I’d see glitter and stoop over, pluck up the gold, drop it in a boot and move on. It came to pass that I filled nearly the entire foot of the left boot. What a feeling! All that gold in my hand in the boot. I stuck my nose into the boot, smelling the tawny leather, and I swear, the aroma of new metal. Such a sensation! Wild surmise is how I felt, like when Cortez discovered the Pacific Ocean, high on that peak in Darien. Oh, I was on an emotional mountain top, feeling like a hundred grand. That moment, I could see it: My life was in my hands now. For once, I knew I was in charge. I was my destiny!
Now, Mountbank Creek begins three miles up the road from my home. It hugs the side of the hill and twists down a little valley until just near my property line, where it curves away from the hill and sweeps to the other side of a long meadow, and then curves back again. The stream makes the bend because near the top end of my land is an outcropping of rocks. The rocks are bluish—maybe shale—layered but uplifted at an angle. A white vein of quartz streaks through this rock in stark contrast, so herein, I suspected, could be a source of gold, and there are formations like this all the way back up the little valley formed by Mountbank Creek.
This rock ledge was acting as a dam of sorts and behind it was a deep, wide trough of gravel—likely full of gold nuggets. The creek bed, then, served as a huge sluice box, and gold, being a heavy metal, sinks to the bottom. Running north and south, the rock ledge passes into my hill. Literally, the stream and mountain were storing all this gold. It was my own personal bank—a private Fort Knox at my fingertips! I just needed to open up the vault door. I surmised I could find more gravel in ancient deposits if I tunneled into the mountainside.
Part III: The Ecstasy of a Gold Mine
So digging a gold mine is exactly what I commenced to do—after some minor interruptions prevented me from starting immediately. At the time, I still had my job, and the day Richie went to town, he had an accident on the way back. He only broke his arm, so I kept him home for several weeks. His presence proved a godsend—another one of those coincidences. I put him to work guarding the property—but I get ahead of myself.
On Monday morning, I called into the office that I was sick, leaving me to visit some jewelers in Nevada City and Grass Valley. As I suspected, they told me the larger nuggets were worth two to three times their weight. By all accounts, I could have as much as $100,000 in gold in that Planters Peanuts can. The jewelers were most excited about my discovery, detailing the dealers and auction houses who would be interested. Naturally, I had to disguise the location of the find, and yet that proved futile for somehow word traveled—rather quickly—because soon there were people trying to sneak onto my property.
That’s my fault. I had been interviewed by the Ledger, the local paper. The reporter—an intern named Cara Lavitch—called, creating an uproar in the household for I had yet to tell Barbara or Richie about my discovery. My wife had answered the phone. I was late in getting back home as I stopped to buy supplies—picks, shovels, more gold pans, rock hammers, two rifles and some ammunition. However, I couldn’t find anyone local to sell me dynamite.
When I finally told Barbara how much the gold was worth—I hadn’t sold any yet—she nearly fainted. Richie jumped up and down so much that he banged his head with the arm cast.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier,” Barbara asked, sounding, I thought, slightly indignant.
I carefully explained the reasons. She wanted to see some of the gold right then, but it was already in the safe deposit box.
“Go pick some out of the creek yourself,” I suggested, laughing. “There’s plenty for all!”
She flew out the door with saucepan in hand. “Don’t look too obvious,” I shouted after her, though it was just on dark by then.
Richie wanted to go down, too, but I said “no” because I didn’t want him to break his other arm. Besides, I had a present to give him: a rifle. I told him he’d better learn how to shoot and suggested he practice using some of his beer cans.
In a few days, he became a pretty fair shot. During that time off from school, he took up post on the front balcony off his bedroom. He lined beer cans along the far side of the creek. He could pick off any one of them. As time went on and, as people tried to trespass, he would give two shouted warnings and then fire up in the air. If they still wouldn’t leave, he would knock off one of the cans at the far end of the creek and work his way slowly toward them. After a couple of cans went flying, they usually got the message. Fortunately for Richie, living out in the country in such a rural county as ours, we have a sensible sheriff who lets boys be boys with their guns. In fact, Deputy Jack, who patrolled our area, was a personal friend of mine, and I had even sold him life and death insurance, so I knew he’d be on my side.
I wanted my wife to learn how to use my old army pistol, but she refused. She hadn’t found any gold that night, and didn’t believe I had either. You’d think the phone call from the newspaper would have been convincing to her. The next day when the reporter came out for the story and pictures, my wife didn’t want to be interviewed by her. I insisted, however, that she pose in the photograph that the reporter took of the three of us on the balcony.
I have the clipping right now in front of me: “Local Insurance Man Finds Gold,” the headline reads. There we are, the three of us, Richie in the oak rocking chair with the rifle across his lap, me standing behind him with my arm around Barbara. I call the photo “Modern American Gothic.”
I was a little displeased with the news story, however, for it mentioned the road I live on, the creek and the address. Well, the latter is my fault. I was so excited that I kept talking about the coincidence—something I never took in before: Our house number is 1849 Mountbank Creek Road. That historic address! The creek name! So foretelling! So fateful! The young reporter, Cara, was so enthusiastic about the story, too, so I got carried away with myself. Anyway, you’d think they’d have omitted these details. In fact, Mack, the editor called me up to verify the facts. I guess he thought his young reporter might have messed things up, or misconstrued what I said. I verified the address and the creek name. But I assured him I had indeed found gold—and a lot of it! From the way he talked, I thought, maybe, he even wanted to drive out and check for himself—actually see the nuggets and walk through the creek. He was very interested in my theory about where the gold might have come from—if its source was further upstream.
“You know, I think most people hope they find gold or treasure sometime,” Mack said. “It’s a fantasy everyone has. A lot of people have died searching for the Lost Dutchman Mine down there in the Arizona. And who doesn’t walk along an ocean beach keenly kicking the sand, hoping to find a Spanish doubloon? People around here even talk about an old stagecoach robbery where a strongbox of gold coins went missing—and so did the highwaymen. Our readers will enjoy this report a lot!”
In fact, the Ledger mined my story for all its worth to sell a few more papers. That’s what they did. Myself, I got even by swiping extra Ledgers from the news rack . I went at night, put 50 cents in and took out a dozen copies—that’ll show them!
No doubt, the newspaper story made me famous. Well, I forgive ‘em for it, as I figure it might help Barbara have more respect for me and my amazing feat. I know that for a woman it’s prestigious to be married to someone famous. I had been once—as a kid appearing in The Hare and the Hound Hour that ran on TV, and now I was again! Since the news article appeared, my phone has been ringing off the hook, sometimes every hour—even at midnight. Breathless reporters digging for facts. The story went over the wire services, and the London Times even called me. They made a dignified apology, for it was one thirty five in the morning here, and Barbara wasn’t so happy. I gladly talked to the reporter, whispering into the phone receiver. When it comes to gold, dead men tell no tales, so I take care!
My neighbors have been pretty good about the fuss and bother and onlookers stopping by the creek. My friend George doesn’t seem to mind. He got a little testy when Richie accidently shot his five-year-old son’s cat. The stupid kitty was crouching in some bushes along the stream—right behind one of Richie’s beer cans. The bullet went clean through cat and can. I went to the animal pound a few days later and said I’d accidently run over my neighbor’s cat and talked them into giving me one free of charge. So George got a new kitty to patch things up.
The third week after my discovery, I ran into a problem because Richie returned to school. In the daytime, gun in hand, he had guarded the land faithfully. What I had then been doing at night for four or five hours was picking over every inch of the creek while Richie held the Coleman lantern for me. I found another $16,000 doing that! So, with him going back to school, I took a leave of absence from my job. I don’t have any vacation or sick days selling insurance.
Now my full-time job is patrolling the creek in the daytime and digging that mine at night. It’s all-consuming and can’t be done properly with a full-time job. I gave notice at work—effective the next day. The agency owner gave me a lecture on responsibility—to me a grown man!—but I told him I now had my own business (named Wyder Mining for our family) to which I was responsible. This is The American Way! And besides, I needed more time to spend for shopping, doing the laundry and all those other household chores since Barbara decided to take a vacation back east for a bit to visit her mom and dad. While Richie stays behind to guard the property, I’m going to church now, too. You’d be surprised how religious wealth makes one feel. I’m even considering giving a small percentage of my profits to the parish. I'm sure Rev. Gagnon can use the extra cash in the donation plate!
In fact, the dear reverend paid us a visit a day ago. He stopped by on Saturday afternoon. Richie was on the balcony, on patrol, as it were, and let him come onto the property and demonstrated his target practice skills by knocking of a few beer cans near the creek. The reverend was mighty impressed and they spent some time together chatting. It’s nice to see my boy taking some interest in religion. When I served Rev. Gagnon coffee, we had a nice gam around the table. He said folks in Two Rivers were asking about us—how we were doing in our new adventure, and what was Barbara up to these days. He hadn’t seen it her at the Sunday service. I’m not sure if she had told him about her impending trip back east, so I let him know she was visiting family. I promised to get him the phone number out there.
“We sure miss her coffee cakes at the Sunday receptions and her playing the piano during the Sunday evening service,” he said. “Vespers is not the same without her.”
He then he began asking about how Richie was doing—with his mom absent, and whatnot. Having heard he’d been out of school for a few weeks, he was naturally concerned that he’d not been seriously injured in the accident that day coming back from town. Deputy Jack was a neighbor of Rev. Gagnon and had no doubt kept him up-to-date on this kind of gossip.
“He’s fine,” I assured. “I think he likes working with me. Not many sons get to work side-by-side with their dads.”
I told him about my granddad, who had actually been a mining engineer, but would never let my father come down into the mines—and how I thought that unfair—and how it caused my dad to join the army.
“Well, fathers have a way of looking out for their sons that sometimes defies logic, and your granddad is a good role model.”
Rev. Gagnon thought it notable that I had given up my day job and said being on my own would no doubt draw me closer to my faith. “Don, you have to develop a new concept of trust,” he counseled. “I’ll be praying for both of you.”
I promised to attend service the next day, and he said he’d be looking forward to that, and also offered Richie a part-time job in the evenings doing light work around the church. He said he was impressed by my son’s work ethic and could pay him a decent hourly wage. I doubted my boy had enough time after school to do anything more than homework. After all, I did let him have that time to himself, but it was a decision that I knew Richie could make on his own.
Richie certainly has been a big help to me. Nice boy, he is. Does anything I tell him. He’s become quick a good cook, too, though I don’t eat much. He’s a real talented kid, and he’ll do well someday. On the weekends, I also have him tunneling into the mountain. (His arm is all healed from the break that happened.) We’ve made substantial progress digging since he has two hands free to swing the pick-axe. It’s great therapy for an injury. Right now, we’re already forty-five feet back into the mountain. The gravel deposits and a quartz vein still continue!
I have a lot of work still to do. Richie is running out of ammo, so I have to go to town to get more bullets. The people in Sacramento must be interested in my discovery because I have numerous phone calls that I have to return from folks at the Bureau of Mines. Got to write a note to remind myself to buy some four-by-fours so we can shore up the tunnel. Richie’s down there right now shoveling the dirt. I found $3,000 last week. I tell you, I’m a happy man. I keep finding gold, so I’m going to keep digging that hole!
c1985 & 2020 H A Silliman
A version of As Happy As Sutter is included in Silliman's Master of Arts Thesis, Sacramento State University, Dec. 1985. A serialized version appeared Aug.-Sept. 2020 in the Downieville Messenger.
All characters mentioned are fictional or fictionally portrayed.
The Mystery of The Saints
Part 1: Matters of Fact
He wanted to be buried in a plain pine box, so Jake the Carpenter built one on the Tuesday Renwick died. As word got out in Two Rivers, the bedroom gradually filled with friends, who gathered in whispers and melancholy.
“Guess it’s my time,” he said, a few evenings previous when I had visited.
He’d only gone down hard on Thursday. Didn’t want to go for coffee, so his housekeeper Marnie called me about noon, very worried.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “He was his usual self yesterday.”
“Maybe he’s been feeling iffy for a while and kept it to himself,” I said.
That Sunday, in fact, Rennie told me he wanted to be laid to rest in the old church yard and had an envelope for me. “These instructions are for the gravesite,” he said. He clasped my arm, stared me straight in the eye and added, “Do the right thing.”
I took the envelope, but thought it rather gruesome to dig that hole—I’d have the plumbers Nick and Noel do it. They were used to getting dirty.
The over-grown cemetery of the little Church of Peter and Paul, circa 1888, sat on Blue Jay Knoll above town—a pretty spot, where no one had been buried in ages. His wife and son, who’d died years before—and whose ashes rested in urns on the bedroom mantel piece—would join him there.
On the morning of the service, Marnie’s kids, Jazmine and Jake, swept up the acorns and pine needles inside the long-neglected, vacant church. Principal Ben and boys from the high school shifted in a load of folding chairs and tables from the cafeteria. Folks started arriving before noon, bringing in casserole dishes and desserts, drinks and whatnot.
The service was classy because it was simple—a make-do affair between bouts of rain that pattered down. Not much for complicated words, Rev. Gagnon, standing on a large rock, kept his remarks short. Even so, I got lost in memories.
Around Two Rivers, Rennie accomplished what few could do or think of doing. When the town needed to replace an old firetruck, he made a few phone calls, and had one brought up from the valley; he acquired donations of hundreds of books when our brave, little library got flooded out in ’77.
1976—that’s when I first encountered Renwick Gold Selleck, my first year as a reporter for the Two Rivers Ledger. Rennie had just bought out his partner in the little phone company that served the town and surrounding settlements.
If you wanted to talk to Rennie in those days—you didn’t phone him—you just walked down Main Street and then up a steep hill to the exchange. He’d be found usually round the back, checking the circuits, or outside on the little lunch patio that overlooked town.
He greeted me like I was already a friend: “Hey ya fella. Hear your Babe’s new reporter. Told me to be on the lookout for you for an interview.”
So we went to the patio carved into the mountainside, a trellis of blooming lilac and jasmine. “My little oasis,” he called it. “Great place to have a think.”
The spot had a pretty little view of the town in the ravines below where the Empire and Rancheria rivers met. You could see Main Street and Battery Street, the American House Hotel, the Pick & Pan Saloon and other landmarks. On the hill opposite, stood the church; its steeple peeked out from a deep green bank of cedars, pines and oaks. This was Rennie’s world, and I guessed he liked keeping an eye on things.
Chatting for two hours, I peppered him with questions as if he were a candidate running for office. He parried them away gracefully—or with quips. His age: “I must be 150 by now—give or take a century.” His politics: “I’m a proud died-in-the-wool Whig.”
Babe red-lined those jests with a snort. Other light-hearted comments remained: “When I got here, the business was just tin cans and string,” he laughed. “Two cans for Two Rivers!”
Rennie had arrived after World War II. Since he was a radio and telephone specialist for the Navy, Mr. Briggs, the old owner, signed him on.
“That’s how I met my ever-loved Julia, who was the telephone operator. I got lucky—her marrying me, a line jockey with no future. You could say she restarted my life.”
Later, Mr. Briggs asked Rennie to become a minor partner. “As years went on, I acquired more of the company. We expanded our service. Went places Ma Bell was scared to—deep into the upper hinterlands. I learned how to use a trencher and a chainsaw!”
As these were skills I never acquired, I was impressed. My dad had been the school’s football coach and math teacher. Our home was in town, nearby, up on Constellation Street. I didn’t have much woodsman sense—but I sure could run the 220 like lighting!
Since I liked Two Rivers enough, years later I came back to start a second round as the Ledger editor, with Babe as publisher. He was a good boss—a cherished employer. After my dad passed, Rennie, though, became my mentor. Signed me up to the Kiwanis Club, made me volunteer at the school. I joined the Alumni Boosters—spent most of my time selling hotdogs and pop at the home football games for Buffalo High, gazing into the end zone, running our senior year’s winning plays over in my mind.
One summer day, Babe sent me to see Rennie, so I walked up to the exchange. He wasn’t on the patio, but behind his desk, a place I wasn’t accustomed to seeing him. Something was fishy.
Part 2: The Stage Is Set
Behind his desk, Renwick Selleck became more straight forward than his usual off-hand self.
“Got a proposal for you,” he said. “Babe is selling the Ledger and wants you to buy. I will become an investor, lend the money. You put in, too. We become partners, and Babe doesn’t sell to that chain in the valley. We can keep our newspaper local.”
The word I like to use now is “gob-smacked” to describe my first reaction to the idea, as if taking a hard tackle midriff.
He loosened up, smiled. “Gotcha, boy! You ready for some real responsibility?” His question hinted at past conversations, his gentle prodding that I should start thinking of myself as more than “Coach’s Kid.” Even after my dad was gone, around town I was still “Coach’s Kid.”
So I threw in all of my meager savings, and the deal was done. At 32, I was the Editor and Publisher of the Ledger. My mom lived a few years longer and visited Wednesday nights when we “put the paper to bed,” as they say, running out the 3,000 copies on a small, ancient flatbed press. She’d bring a big bowl of spaghetti and salad for the little crew, and homemade pie.
With her gone now, I keep the tradition going, and can still see her smiling at the end of the circulation table, handing out apple pie after the mailing labels were done. Some memories aren’t memories—but visions wavering in distant mists of grief and joy. Looking back that day at Renwick’s graveside, my grief sprung from loss of a mentor and business partner, loss of my youth, and for seeing a town so saddened.
After the burial, the mourners regrouped inside. The church, now warming, smelled of musty wood, acorns and pine needles. Most of us ate standing, easier that way to dodge the rain dripping in from the ceiling.
On a table, Marnie had set out a few photos of Rennie—shots of him in the Navy, the wedding with Julia—that kind of thing. Alone, I studied them and then went to a front window, and stared through murky panes, across the ravine. The town lay below, and opposite were the telephone office, its patio trellis and picnic table quite distinct—and quite empty. My tears mixed with the raindrops from the ceiling—good thing my back was to the crowd.
A tap on the shoulder, and Marnie was beside me, offering apple pie—my favorite. She saw my eyes, so gave me a sideways hug, leaned her head in.
She said, “I never thought he’d go. He was so determined and focused on what came next—the daily things. When he felt tired, he rested. Never mentioned pain. I hardly knew he was getting weaker.”
“Me neither,” I offered. “Age didn’t matter. He didn’t consider himself a senior citizen.”
She laughed. “How he hated that label.”
I nibbled at the pie, dodged a raindrop, and we both turned to take in the scene—the eating and chatting—the spread of food—a buffet bountiful. Someone had brought a few kerosene lanterns, glowing now, as evening drew forth. The rain outside picked up from a drizzle to a downpour. Marnie and I both looked up at the ceiling’s handsome tongue-and-grove woodwork, bowing here and there from water damage. The wood still shimmered from an old varnishing.
“A pity this building is going to rack-and-ruin,” I said. “It should be saved.”
While we continued staring upward, Rev. Gagnon approached. “I’m heart-broken,” he told Marnie. “I can only imagine how you feel.”
She said, “I’m still too stunned to feel anything more than ‘what-the-heck-just-happened.’ ”
Rev. Gagnon touched her arm. “Exactly how I’m thinking. Just wow!”
A moment like this would compel another person to proffer sentiment. I just looked back at them with eyes brimming. They smiled and nodded their heads. The three of us stood silently, just letting things be, and then Marnie asked, “Why doesn’t the parish restore the church. You could use it for something—maybe weddings?”
He laughed. “It’s not our building, that’s why. We don’t own it. Never did.”
“Who’s is it?” Marnie asked.
Rev. Gagnon shrugged his shoulders and said, with a wry glance and tilt of his head toward outdoors, “He knew.”
Marnie burst out laughing.
“I should think the County Recorder would know something,” I offered. As Lindy, however, had left earlier, we couldn’t ask her directly.
“I wonder,” Marnie said, “if that’s what Rennie meant when he had me find that old ammo box that was his Rainy Day fund. He said it was for the hall. I thought he meant food and beverages, but he said I’d know when I got there.”
“Well, it can’t get much rainier than when it’s coming down inside,” chuckled Rev. Gagnon.
Standing there, the three of us, under drops from rain and grief, in sudden dawning looked at each other, and Marnie spoke it aloud: “I have a great idea!”
Part 3—A Visit Most Mysterious
The night after the service for Renwick Selleck, I heard that a few folks had gathered at Jeremy’s River Eats café. Since I wasn’t there, Jeremy later related details to me. They first saluted Rennie with several rounds of Rolling Rock beer, a taste he acquired during the war.
“Nick Norbert stopped by briefly,” Jeremy added, “but got called away on a plumbing emergency. Noel filled in for him—including drinking his brother’s share of the beer. A very merry group.”
The thought must have been in the air—Marnie’s “great idea” voiced at the service: Fix up the church to keep it from falling down.
Noel recalled helping his grandfather, Howard, part of a crew in the early ‘60s that patched up the building. “Everyone just pitched in,” Noel had said. “It was just painting mostly.”
Over more beers, they plotted a rescue mission and haggled, too, over who should be responsible. Nursery owner Carole Chukar nailed the sentiment: Everyone would pitch in, no matter if the church were Catholic or Protestant.
Then, the next day, Saturday morning, Rev. Gagnon called me. “I have an inspiration,” he said. “We should find out who exactly built the church back in 1888. Can you check the newspaper’s archives?”
The Ledger, like most newspapers, binds each year’s issues into a big volume—like a hard cover book. There was a small room in our office, where they were stored. I said sure! The reverend also said Marnie had phoned to say she’d counted $1,870 in Rennie’s ammo box for the repairs. He added, “This is a project that Rennie would get behind. Community service was his compulsion.”
I agreed, remembering how Rennie constantly prodded me to get involved with this or that cause—as if running a newspaper wasn’t enough service to the community.
“One last thing,” Rev. Gagnon said, “The ad hoc group forming wants the repair work done now. They’re asking the contractor Rex Jenner to help.”
This was typical Two Rivers’ community spirit, essential when people live a long drive down a winding road: Chip in, get things done—and quickly. I love our town for that. For my part, I asked our newspaper intern, Cara Lavitch, to interview the County Recorder and then check the back volumes, starting with 1887.
Any other young reporter would be crest-fallen at an assignment that’s not “news” but “history,” but Cara latched onto the idea.
“Sort of like a Nancy Drew Mystery,” she said. “This is way cool.”
Cara had proven herself a dogged reporter and pursuer of facts. Recently, she had chronicled the story of an insurance salesman who found a fair amount of gold on his property and planned to dig a gold mine. The story generated a lot of reader interest and had legs—with newspapers around the country and across the world picking it up. She hinted that the saga wasn’t over—as she had stumbled onto new information and was waiting to for further developments. Her favorite phrase is “Truth always comes out.” One had to be careful around her!
About that time, Babe called and asked me to stop by. In his early 90s now, my former publisher was still lucid, though hobbled by bad knees—ancient gridiron injuries from Buffalo High. In the rain, I walked to his beautiful A-Frame house set above the town. His wife, Marie, had coffee and hot biscuits waiting. Babe seemed preoccupied; something was amiss.
“Yesterday,” he began, with an exhale, “Jeri Lynn came by. She’s had a story she’s wanted to get off her chest for ages, but felt it had to wait until, well, Rennie was out of the scene.”
“This can’t be good,” I said, feeling queasy. Rennie’s reputation was solid gold. For that matter, Jeri Lynn, a retired land broker in her ‘80s, was true-blue, too.
“Well, it’s not too bad,” Babe assured. “Just weird—puzzling.”
The tale—and I have to say that’s how I heard it—as a tale, was this: In 1889, Jeri Lynn’s grandmother, Esmerelda Watts, 18 at the time, met a young man, a newcomer named Patrick. He was peddling a tonic called The Electric Elixir. They became sweet on each other, but after a bit, Patrick suddenly left town—no word why or word from him later.
Fast forward a half century, and it’s 1945, late October. The grandma, who is about 74 now, is living in her dotage with Jeri Lynn’s parents. One day the phone needs fixing and up shows the repairman, young Renwick Gold Selleck, fresh out of the war and new to town. He comes in the house, and while talking to Jeri Lynn, the grandmother overhears, hobbles in and gets suddenly and violently hysterical, calling out, Patrick! Patrick! Patrick! She collapses. Rennie bolts from the house. Later, after Esmerelda recovered from the shock, she takes Jeri Lynn into her confidence and swears that Rennie is Patrick come back from the grave to take her to home!
Babe paused in the story here, and then said, “The grandmother never quite recovered from the shock, and died soon after—which is one of the reason’s Jeri Lynn kept the story quiet all these years. She didn’t want to cause Rennie grief or hurt his reputation over what was obviously a case of mistaken identity.”
Up to this point, I had been silent, but blurted out, “The old lady was off her rocker. Bet her eyesight was pretty poor by then—being over 70.”
“True,” Babe said, and then he opened an envelope and, rather dramatically, slid over an old picture. He went on, “Esmerelda had kept this photo taken at the old Serlin Studio. She showed it to Jeri Lynn after Rennie had left that day.”
I looked down at what was obviously a portrait from over a century ago. There stood a young woman and young man: she in a long, dark, high-collared dress; he dapper in a long coat and handle bar mustache. I was gob-smacked: It was the spitting image of a young Rennie.
Part 4: A Century-Old Puzzle
I continued staring at the photo taken over a century ago that appeared to be a young Renwick Gold Selleck.
“Wait, "I said, disbelieving, grasping for a logical explanation. “Everyone has a doppelganger—you’ve heard of them—an almost twin. Rennie’s look-a-like was just living in a different century.”
Babe shrugged his shoulders, took a second gander at the picture. “Kind of looks like Rennie when he was young. I remember when he swept into town, his black hair combed back, wearing a long, dark coat. He cut quite the figure. Set the girls a-twitter. He stole Julia from me, but then I got sweet on Marie—thank God! The thing is, I never knew anything about his family, or where he came from. He always joked about how old he was, too. Like when he told you he was 150 and a member of the Whig Party! Maybe Frank at the Historical Society knows more about him.”
“What was Patrick’s last name?” I asked.
Babe stopped and thought. “I think Jeri Lynn said Esmerelda called him Patrick Church.”
Later that day, I phoned our Historical Society president, Frank Aliberti, to see what he knew about Renwick.
Frank chuckled. “There’s not too much to tell. Rennie was a cypher about that stuff. I did a piece on the centennial of the Two Rivers Telephone & Telegraph and interviewed him. Standard Q&A we do for recording the town’s history. When the questions turned personal, he dodged about. Said it was ancient history and pointless to the present. I thought maybe he was a black sheep of the family. I let it go. By then, of course, he was one of Two Rivers’ leading citizens. And a nice guy, to boot!”
“What about the war—did he talk about that?”
“The war? Yes, a lot! Loved the Navy. His unit had get-togethers on and off over the years. A few were held in town, right at the American House Hotel. He served in the South Pacific, out in the Hebrides. I met some of the guys, once. They said they were actually interviewed by—guess who—James Michener!—who’d been sent to those itty-bitty atolls to find out why the boys didn’t want to come home after the war.”
“So, Rennie arrives in 1945, but before that you don’t know anything.”
“Pretty much,” Frank said. “He got here, eventually met Julia and that was that! He told me she completely turned his life around. Made him a new man. I guess a good woman will do that for you.”
When a journalist stumbles onto a sensational story, the best thing to do is sit on the information and see what develops. That’s exactly what I did. Certainly, I couldn’t write a story based upon the memories of long-dead Esmerelda. What would be the point? Who’d believe it—even with the alleged photographic evidence. Meanwhile, that week our newspaper intern completed her first article on the church:
A Puzzle: Who Owns The Church of Peter & Paul?
By Cara Lavitch, Ledger Intern
Amid raindrops punctuating Renwick Selleck’s recent service inside the Church of Peter and Paul, town folks realized the building needed repair—but who exactly owns it—or the land?
“Not the Presbyters,” said Rev. Gagnon, a similar statement repeated across the board by other faith groups, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist—not even the Buddhists.
While the building’s provenance needs solving, the land ownership should be easily determind: Just ask County Recorder Lindy Case, right?
Uh, not so fast.
Sitting among musty property records in the county’s own historic building, Case flipped opened the pages for Township 17 in the year 1888.
“Here it is,” she exclaimed. “The land owner was recorded as Peter and Paul Church!”
Case explained that since churches don’t pay property taxes, county recorders don’t pay much attention to them unless there’s a disputed ownership.
“Nothing for this land has arisen in my 30 years on this job,” she added, noting, “When the town got flooded in ’77, a lot of the modern records from 1900 onward were destroyed. I’d have to dig into the earlier files to see if I can find when title might have changed. I mean, it can’t still be the same.”
So, a mystery solved? The church, itself, owned the land. But that begs the question: Who owns the neglected church?
The Two Rivers Ledger is on the case…
When I first read the article, I mistakenly thought that Peter and Paul Church could be actual people—which would be a remarkable coincidence, given that I just learned about the appearance of a Patrick Church in the same era.
I wanted to dig more into this, but the news turned to the weather: The rain did not relent, and that gets the attention of residents living at the junction of two rivers. My cousin, Deputy Sheriff Jack, was keeping an eye on an old impound dam on a tributary, upriver. The century-old concrete structure, which contained mine tailings, had recently developed cracks. The slurry was growing soggier while waters slowly rose in the nearby creeks and rivers. Folks made ready the sandbags.
Part 5: A Cryptic Telegram
While Ledger intern Cara Lavitch tracked down more of the church history, efforts to preserve the building remained afoot. As a rule, folks in town pretty well get along with each other. If there’s rivalry, it’s for who can make the best pie for the fair, or build the wildest raft for RiversFest—the kind of goofiness found in a Disney movie about a small town. Rounding up volunteers for the church rescue came easy: The usual suspects stepped forward. People who didn’t normally participate, eagerly chipped in, too, and for good reason: The building shows up prominently in postcards of the town, so saving the church meant saving a beloved landmark.
Dodging raindrops and storms, Rex completed the roof repairs, allowing interior work to start, with Carpenter Jake and Carole doing woodwork. Rev. Gagnon asked me to help him paint the inside when the time came. Some high school students, too, volunteered eagerly.
Soon thereafter, Marnie called about cleaning out Rennie’s bedroom. His house, a sprawling 1872 clapboard contraption, sat on a hillside above town. His bedroom took up the second floor under the main dormer.
“I just can’t go in there yet and rummage around. His clothes need sorting. The best to go to the pet rescue society. Can you help?”
I went over one morning, and she sat me down for fresh-baked blueberry muffins and coffee and gave me a puzzled look.
“I’m also searching for paperwork—not the will, Paul Bartley, the attorney, has that—but birth and death records, old photos. Julia’s sister, Betsie, asked about that. I checked downstairs. There’s nothing. Be on the lookout.”
Her kids came in just then—Jazmine and Jake—and volunteered to help. Marnie looked doubtful, but I said I would appreciate their company. They brought boxes and garbage bags. Marnie said toss the linens, towels, and medicine chest items. That easy task I set the youngsters on.
I went to start on the closet, and inside I found another small door—tucked under the roof line. Curious, I tugged on the knob. The door held fast. I had to pull extra hard—it hadn’t been touched in years. This dusty cubby hole contained just a shelf with a small box. Inside, were a few old letters to Rennie from Julia and, in a small envelope, a telegram and an old photograph.
I examined the photo closely. There were three young men, smartly dressed in cloaks, who all looked alike—two were obvious twins. The other was the same fellow as in Esmerelda’s photo—a dead ringer for young Renwick Selleck! I was gob-smacked. My hands started shaking. I set the photo aside and read the ancient telegram, its date illegible, its message cryptic: “God awaits a stone throw from the saints.” It was addressed to R. Sellick from The Deacons.
Not knowing what to make of that, I put everything in my coat pocket for safekeeping. We finished cleaning out the room—and notably—did not find any records. Not even letters from other relatives.
That night, it came to pass that intern Cara had spent a few hours searching the newspaper archives. She hit gold rather quickly, rushing over to my home with a bound volume the next morning as I prepared breakfast. This is verbatim what she found in the May 12, 1887, edition:
New Place of Worship Set
Messrs. Peter and Paul Church propose the construction of a modern house of worship on Blue Jay Knoll. The two brothers, who arrived in Two Rivers of late, and whose visage upon first encounter by a stranger evokes the realization they are exact twins, seek support for construction herewith of a 30 x 80 foot structure with steeple. They provided the Ledger with an informal drawing that can be viewed in this office, upon inquiry. The deacons subscribe to the Dr. Finial Scientific Practice of God and The Universe, with the latest methods for preparing sustenance. They also profess to be trained in telegraphy and propose installing the invention in the building proper to permit direct communication with the Almighty. A meeting to familiarize interested parties with Dr. Finial’s practices will be announced in the future. The proposed structure, which they said, God has led them to name as the Church of Peter and Paul, is being sited adjacent to the old Gooseneck Mine, on the stage road to Sheep Ranch Junction.
A good reporter, Cara had questions, “Can we do an interpretive story?” she asked. “Examine the facts, investigate. I bet people thought The Church of Peter and Paul was named after the saints. Turns out, it’s two telegraph operators. That’s weird, huh?”
I considered for a moment. “Let’s not do that yet. Our readers are intelligent. They’ll have the same questions. Let the story unfold.”
The morning of publication, in fact, Babe called—it was always a treat to hear from him.
“That article on the Churches jogged my mind,” he said. “Years and years ago, Rennie used to come and spend time in the archives. Said he wanted information on the phone company. But just now I got to wonder if he was digging into his own past for some reason. Check it out.” He hung up.
Admittedly, Cara’s article sent alarm bells ringing in my head. Peter and Paul Church were real people, after all—and they were twins, just like the two men in the photo from Rennie’s closet, a photo that also shows a man who looked remarkably like young Rennie. Could these twins be related to him?
Part 6: The Tangled Cords of History
Indeed, I had to let the story unfold, as covering the efforts to sandbag the town needed editorial attention. People were really worrying about the rising rivers. The Ledger office, fortunately, sat on a back alley above Main Street, an elevation high enough to avoid the worst of disasters. That meant I could focus on the storm coverage. Yet on Monday, I got distracted when our intern Cara came rushing out of the newspaper’s archives.
“You have got to see this!” She pushed a volume at me. “It’s the article from June 14, 1888.”
I glanced at the modest headline, “New Church Opens”
Messrs. Peter and Paul Church celebrated the completion of their new sanctuary on Blue Jay Knoll, Sunday last. The feasting afterward featured a number of unique items offered by the deacons in the way of tonics that subscribe to Dr. Finial’s proprietary methods. The Messrs. Churches affirm that a charge of electricity is used in their preparation. Deacon Paul Church told our correspondent that Low Voltage current stimulates the atoms, which thereby increases the efficacy and potency of minerals and vitamins and promotes the general well-being of body and mind. Those in attendance are reported to have sampled such items as The Better Beet Root Juice For Stimulating Blood, Dr. Finial’s Daily Dose for Energy, and The Electric Elixir for Happiness, Health and Longevity. It was a lively affair, and all agreed the church is an attractive addition to our town.
A hard stop in my reading: That last concoction caught me up. I blurted out an expletive. Cara stared at me. “What’s the matter,” she asked. “You look funny.”
“Nothing,” I said. “The electricity thing is odd.”
“Frankly,” Cara confided, “it sounds like snake oil to me.”
I shook my head. Was this a weird coincidence? Esmerelda’s beau, also named Church, selling The Electric Elixir, and now, here in black-and-white, an historical record of where it might have come from? Another oddity, too: There was no mention of a Patrick Church in the article.
Years ago, before I came back to town, I wrote for a suburban daily. One night, covering the police beat, I stumbled onto a bizarre story of a van full of kids plunging into a reservoir. Seven died. I interviewed friends, and found one boy who claimed he was actually in the van, but miraculously escaped harm. I felt I had a tiger by the tail and wrote up the account.
The editor questioned me closely to see if I was sure about the source. I was positive. We went to press. As it turned out, the boy lied. He later confessed that he wanted to be part of something “big.” I learned my lesson and since have been extremely cautious about the reliability of sources—or source material. So there, reading from the archives of a newspaper I now owned, I felt, again, I had a tiger by the tail, and the source seemingly impeachable—my own publication!
By and by, the spring storms kept us on edge: a hard rain one day, partly cloudy the next, followed by hours of showers, and then blue sky—and back to rain again. That’s why the imperiled impound dam above Two Rivers continued to worry everyone.
Between one set of storms, I finally found a ride there. Carole drove me in her World War II jeep. The lower road to the mine was an unpaved quagmire—almost a mini-Jeepers Jamboree experience, with the amount of mud she sent flying. I held onto the roll bar for dear life while Carole laughed and laughed and laughed, careening the vehicle about.
Some guys from town had arrived and wanted to bring up their tractors and start pushing dirt around but were told to wait because state inspectors and consultants were rumored to be on their way. What they could do, was anyone’s guess. With the photos and a description of the hairy trip up there and back, I had a Page One story, “Dam Cracks Threaten Town,” for the next edition—if the town survived!
Then, the day for painting the interior of the church—white with gold trim—arrived. Rev. Gagnon with the high school crew and myself (armed with carafes of Sally’s Deli coffee) arrived in a deluge on a Saturday morning. The ceiling was already fixed—no leaks!—and varnished. Even in clouded light of storm, the wood glowed. The high school kids were a merry bunch—they had a fun service project to help them earn credits to graduate. Huddling with steaming mugs in hand, we assigned tasks.
Working by myself, I chose the vestibule entry—rather interesting because of the shelves that made it look like an apothecary, and that obviously warranted my investigation. I could envision the scene as folks filed out after a Sunday service a century ago: one of the Church boys selling the elixirs, tipping his hat, saying “God bless you m’am,” and pocketing a silver dollar.
Pharmacist Pete’s girl, Emily, and high school quarterback—Nick’s kid—Ansel, went to the back of the church, behind short wing walls. Rev. Gagnon chose the pulpit, and two boys went with him. All started well. Someone had rock ‘n roll oldies playing on a radio. The fresh paint peppered the musty-wood air, and the air hummed with that conviviality of community spirit—folks pitching in. I love that! Then a while on, a girl’s scream rang out, followed by a sickening thud. We rushed to the disturbance and found an alarming spectacle: Emily and Ansel had vanished!
Part 7: A Town Awash In Events
Even an old journalist as myself—trained in observation, recording detail and dialogue—remembering what happened next in the proper order is admittedly tricky. But here’s what I have: The painting crew hurried to where we last saw Emily and Ansel. We found only a paint can and brush. Below, we heard a murmur, groans and then rising cries: “Help! Help us! Help!”
Rev. Gagnon dashed outside to search for a crawl space entry.
Becky Jenner pounded on the floor. “We hear you,” she said. “We’re going to get you out.”
“Is there a trap door?” Jimmy Kelly asked. He knelt down, and using his fingernails, began searching for a seam on the floorboards.
Another kid, I think it was Harold Johnson, exclaimed, “Maybe they tripped a secret lever in the wall!” He began scratching along the recently chipped paint.
In disbelief, I watched the scene unfold: The mad dash outside, people frantically scratching at the floor and walls, the cries for help: How do you lose people in a church?
Suddenly, there was a loud click; the floor began to pivot. Just in time, Jimmy grabbed Harold’s arms before he tilted into darkness. The trap door remained open. Below, we could see the surprised faces of Emily and Ansel staring upward from the bottom of a steep staircase. We lifted them out. They were shaken and bruised, but thankfully, suffered no greater injury. They were dusting themselves off when, at the front of the church, came a clatter. Deputy Jack strode in, with a warning: The impound dam might fail at any time!
Immediately, I returned to newspaper office. Grabbing my camera, I dashed off for the dam, using the much longer, but paved, upper mine road. A newly arrived confab—engineer corps, county and state officials and other lookie-loos—were on scene when I pulled up. They milled around above the dam, peering into muddy waters. They were a well-dressed, expensive-looking lot, and you could almost hear their consulting fee clocks ticking away. The dam sure looked iffy. Water spurted from a multitude of cracks, spraying out as if from a fire hose. A collapse could send a slurry down river and wreak havoc along Main and Battery streets.
Cousin Jack, who had driven back, came up to me, “We’re going to evacuate the lower portions of Two Rivers. Get back and spread the word.”
“Where should people go?” I asked. The rain had been falling steadily now for a day.
“Let’s open up the Church of Peter and Paul,” he said. “It’s dry now, and we can get more lights and heaters there. It’s a good, safe spot.”
“We just started painting inside today,” I said. “But it’s ready to go.”
“Let’s do it,” said Deputy Jack.
After snapping photos of the feckless officials with the failing dam behind them, I left. Back at the office, I started making phone calls, and asked friends to do the same. I called Carole, and she and I would drive around to alert folks in low-lying areas. Sally from the deli and Jeremy from the café agreed to organize food and head up to the church.
By the time I got done four hours later, the church was surrounded by cars and trucks. Light glowed warmly from the windows. Rain kept streaming down, but inside, the building was snug as bug—cozy, dry and warm. Folks—about 85 of them—were unrolling sleeping bags and talking in little groups. A food line was set up. Bread and bowls of steaming chicken soup were handed out. Shivering, I found a spot next to a heater to dry out. Jeremy brought me soup.
“I have the café surrounded by sandbags,” he said. “I pray they work.”
“The dam hasn’t cracked yet,” I replied. “Let’s have hope!”
He nodded, pointed out the coffee urn, and went back to the soup line. What a guy, I thought, helping folks while his own business is in peril. Guess that’s why I like Two Rivers, how people think of others in times like this.
After drying off and finishing the soup by myself, I got coffee and sat down at an empty table. That’s when Ansel came up to me. It felt like a year since I’d seen the boy—but it was only that morning we were painting.
“I never did tell you what I saw underneath,” he said, looking around cautiously. “There were dozens of little bottles, like for medicine. A bit farther down a tunnel, I saw a broken-up treasure chest and maybe gold coins scattered on the ground. I couldn’t see clearly, it was dark.”
He looked at me closely, for I must have appeared incredulous. I assured him that I believed his account.
“Do you want to go back there now and investigate?” he asked.
“Have you told anyone else?”
“I think we’d rouse suspicion if we went now,” I said. “We’ll explore after everyone leaves—in a few days.”
He shook his head eagerly. “That will be fun! I won’t tell anyone!”
Part 8: Another Disappearance And An Old Crime
After taking more photos and doing interviews for the evacuation story, I left for the office and found Cara waiting when I arrived. She thrust sheets of paper at me.
“It’s from the archives,” she exclaimed. “I condensed the articles I found so far about the church.”
Reading the story, though, had to wait as I batted out a news account of the day’s events—the headline, “No Dam Help—Residents Flee.” That one would certainly empty out the newsstands! Later that evening in the quiet at home, I sat down in front of the fire. The rain had eased to a drizzle, so maybe the town would catch a break and wouldn’t flood. I hoped so, for those refugees in the church would have to leave before I could return to investigate! I delved into Cara’s account:
Aug. 2, 1888—Peter and Paul Church offered a display of the Power of God, with a telegraph message from Him that people need to pay heed to their health, and partake of daily supplements like The Better Beet Root Juice.
Nov. 15, 1888—An Advertisement: New Stocks of The Electric Elixir and Dr. Finial’s Daily Dose are now on hand at The Church of Peter and Paul. Buy the tonics in lots of six and save. Satisfaction guaranteed.
May 2, 1889—More town residents this past spring have reported becoming ill after partaking of Dr. Finial’s Daily Dose, the special elixir promoted by Peter and Paul Church during their religious services. All have recovered, but Mrs. Pander is much weakened.
June 6, 1889—An angry mob of residents marched up to Blue Jay Knoll, seeking Peter and Paul Church, two evenings previous. Our correspondent witnessed the crowd calling for the brothers to show themselves and answer for the reports of illness among those who imbibed Dr. Finial’s tonic water. Among reports of people taken ill are those who drank an entire bottle in one dose. The crowd remained outside for an hour, but the Messrs. Churches did not appear. Our correspondent reported he, himself, had sampled each tonic previously and suffered no malady, and a rheumatism in his shoulder disappeared after a week’s daily dose of The Electric Elixir.
June 13, 1889—Messrs. Peter and Paul Church have not been seen hereabout for several weeks. No services have been held at the church since the last Sunday in May. The rooms in the church and living annex were searched by Constable Myatt, with interested parties. It appeared as if the Messrs. Churches had vacated quickly some weeks hence, leaving many possessions behind and food in the larder. Vestibule shelves were yet lined with the now disgraced tonic waters.
July 11, 1889—Correspondent G. Dahl reports that Peter and Paul Church have yet to return to Two Rivers. The search for them has been postponed as the town is much taken now with the stage robbery on the road to Sheep Ranch Junction, a week previous. A strongbox of gold coin worth $100,000 is described by the Overland co. as having been onboard for deposit in the Sacramento National Bank. The whereabouts of the two thieves is unknown at this time, according to Constable Myatt.
Aug. 8, 1889—Constable Myatt has taken possession of the Church of Peter and Paul, since the mysterious disappearance of the namesake brothers two months previous. Judge Anderson has declared the building abandoned and proclaims the holding to be a commonwealth property for the use by the citizens of Two Rivers. The town’s Benevolent Society was assigned caretaker status, under leadership of Messr. G. Turner.
Dec. 12, 1889—From our correspondent in Sheep Ranch Junction arrives the report that two bodies were discovered nearby after a recent rainstorm and local flood. The bodies, which are male, are believed to be those of missing Peter and Paul Church, late of Two Rivers, and church deacons. However, the condition of the corpses is so deteriorated as to prevent identification that can be ascertained with any measurable assurance, nor the manner of death. The skulls show much damage—whether by accident or foul play. The bodies, clothed in the long cloaks which the Messrs. Churches were known to wear.
Feb. 13, 1890--Sheriff R. Tucker has arrived in town from Joplin, Missouri, seeking information and the whereabouts of the brothers Peter and Paul Church. The Sheriff has traced the men to Two Rivers, but the trail seems to stop here. The men are wanted for confidence schemes and for larceny. Readers of this newspaper may remember Messrs. Churches built a church on Blue Jay Knoll a few years back and began selling tonic waters that promised happiness, health and longevity. When these elixirs made people ill, the two “Deacons” as they called themselves left town abruptly, not to be heard from since. Months afterward, two bodies found near Sheep Ranch Junction were assumed to be the brothers Church, though exact indentification was never established.
Wow! What an account Cara had compiled. Here, seemingly in tidy fashion, she had solved the mystery of the church ownership. It had long belonged to town residents, via the Benevolent Society. I admit that I’d never heard of that group and figured the Historical Society must have some information. But now, it was the stagecoach robbery that had me enthralled. Had Constable Myatt missed a connection between the sudden departure of Peter and Paul Church and the heist? Of course, he hadn’t known what I knew: A strongbox and gold coins were sitting under the church!
Part 9: Secrets Under The Floorboards
A stagecoach robbery. Gold coins under the church. Two mysterious deaths. These facts still swum in my head when clearing weather, finally, brought relief for the town. River levels inched downward, and the impound dam, according to Deputy Jack, remained stable. He said the cracks were actually helping by letting water drain away.
With the danger passed, folks finally decamped from the church. That gave me a few days leeway before painting resumed for me to search underneath. What a headline that would make: “Old Stagecoach Robbery Solved!” And the inference, too, that the Churches were likely highway men. What a grand spectacle!
I set Thursday night to explore. In the gloaming, I found the church graveyard eerie, so quickly moved inside through the unlocked door. With a small flashlight, I located the secret latch. When it clicked, I was careful not to fall into darkness.
The space below, I discovered, was cleverly concealed behind the foundation of the church. Anyone finding their way underneath, wouldn’t see this hidden room. It was lined with shelves of tonic bottles, The Electric Elixir for Happiness, Health, and Longevity—their yellowed labels peeling.
Inside a nearby old trunk were two long, ratty coats. The musty smell over-powered me. In the pocket of one, I found a very old and crumbling Overland Stage schedule. In the breast pocket of the other, were two printed calling cards: R A Selleck and P R Church, in elegant type. I kept the items.
The space then opened into an obvious mine tunnel, and right there, lay the remains of the strongbox Ansel had seen. It was dashed apart, gold coins were scattered on the ground, as if someone had beem in a hurry. Continuing on, I came to a larger space. My flashlight revealed rusty, opened tin cans and a campfire ring made of limestone. Someone had been living here a long time ago.
Farther along, looming out of darkness, was a contraption that could only be an alcohol still. Its size flat-out startled me. Pipes coiled out from all directions. Tonic bottles were lying around. Evidently, the elixirs contained high-grade booze! No wonder why folks who drank an entire bottle had taken ill! On the ground, a bit of tattered cloth—a crumbling handkerchief—caught my attention. This I pocketed.
Finding nothing more, I backtracked and went home. Exhausted, I showered and slept. The next morning, rejuvenated and exuberant after my discoveries—yes, I took the coins and a few bottles of elixir—I walked to Jeremy’s River Eats café. The usual gang was in place at the front window table, kibitzing over coffee and doughnuts, Carole’s laughs ringing out. I shouted down another round of doughnuts for all, and since there didn’t seem to be any room at their table, found a booth nearby, sat down and tried to make sense of the swirl of facts. My thoughts were a jumble. Be logical, I told myself. List what’s known.
Reaching into my coat pocket for pad and pen, I felt the handkerchief from the night before, the stage schedule and the calling cards. First unfolding the cloth, I studied it in the light of day. The material had yellowed and was marked with faded smudges. Small round holes peppered the cloth, as if something had eaten through. In the corner, I noticed a faded monogram in flowery typescript. The letters, in bad shape, appeared to be ROS. Perhaps the R was really a B. There was no mistaking the S. Refolding the handkerchief and lost in my reverie, I didn’t see Marnie approach until she slid into the opposite seat.
“Thanks for the doughnut!”
I looked up. She smiled. “I got the last old-fashioned glazed!” And then seeing the cloth, she asked, “What’s that? It looks like one of Rennie’s.”
Unfolding it again, I smoothed the handkerchief on the table. “I doubt that, look at the monogram, “BOS or ROS.”
She shook her head firmly. “Oh, no, it’s one of his. That’s not an O, it’s a G. I’d recognize the monogram anywhere. “Where did you get it?”
And here, I couldn’t lie to her. That would be so wrong, so I told the truth. “Found it near the church. I’m doing a photo feature.”
She picked up the handkerchief, rubbed the cloth. “I just threw a bunch of them away. They actually belonged to his father. I wonder how it ended up there. It sure got to be in bad shape quickly. Don’t remember seeing one so tattered.”
“This was his father’s handkerchief,” I stammered
“Yes,” she said. “Rennie had them as keepsakes.”
I was gob-smacked at that news. That meant his father might actually have been in Two Rivers.
“Would you like it?”
“Oh, goodness no, what’s to be done with it? Frame it in a shadow box to hang on the wall, like some museum piece?”
“I’ll take a photo for the feature spread I do,” I offered quickly, my mind reeling from Marnie’s revelation. “An historical find at the old church. Fitting, too, since that’s where he rests.”
With that comment, I could see Marnie sag a bit, in grief. A doughnut was no antidote, so I distracted her with a question: Did Rennie ever talk about family history?
Marnie knew very little. He told her once that his family had all passed away before Pearl Harbor and that his father had been in Two Rivers briefly as a youth and liked it a lot.
“I never asked questions beyond that,” she said.
“Have you ever heard of an R.A. Selleck? Did Rennie mention any relatives’ names?
“No, not at all—just that his dad was also named Renwick Gold Selleck.”
Part 10: A Stone Throw From The Saints
I sat there sipping coffee, pondering the facts—the evidence on hand: Rennie’s dad had been in Two Rivers as a youth; his handkerchief in the tunnel; calling cards for R.A. Selleck and P.R. Church; ancient trench coats; a photo of three men—probably brothers, one the same fellow in Esmerelda’s photo; Esmerelda’s incredible story about a runaway boyfriend named Patrick Church—maybe who was now probably Rennie’s dad; bottles of The Electric Elixir, the same tonic that Patrick peddled; a stagecoach schedule; a stagecoach robbery, gold coins and a strongbox.
Undoubtedly, I forgot one or two bits. The big question: Where is the gold from the heist? That’s when I suddenly recalled that telegram from “The Deacons” in Rennie’s closet: “God awaits a stone throw from the saints.”
Maybe, it wasn’t God waiting, maybe, it was gold! Peter and Paul had actually robbed the stage and buried the treasure in a spot later easy to get to, but, just in case, sent that telegram to Rennie’s dad, who had already fled town, hoping he could decipher it.
If only there had been an actual map which the brothers had sent. In this whole kerfuffle, though, the only map I knew were instructions for Rennie’s grave. Nick Norbert, who dug the hole, was still up front in the cafe, finishing his coffee and doughnut, so on a hunch, I walked over, and got his attention.
“You know, I’m doing an article on the Church of Peter and Paul and whatnot,” I explained. “Do you still have the map, or instructions?”
“Nope,” Nick said. “Tossed it. Why keep the thing?”
“Any issues digging Rennie’s grave? Find anything?”
He thought a second. “The exact spot Rennie indicated had some large stones. He must have meant the plot adjacent, so that’s where we dug it, to the right of the rocks.”
I remembered the rocks now: blue limestone like the church foundation. Rev. Gagnon had stood on one for the eulogy. Thanking Nick, I went back to my seat and speculated, letting things ferment in my mind—and suddenly came to a conclusion most startling: Rennie had given those instructions to me—had wanted me to dig the grave. Maybe he had deciphered the telegram, after all, and knew all about the gold. That meant, I needed to go back there and dig!
Well-armed with tools, I went the same evening, The pine trees screened a rising moon—so I had to hurry, because let’s face it, the sight of a silhouette digging in a cemetery at night would certainly raise suspicion. Deputy Jack would likely show up. What would I say to him? “Hey cuz, I’m going fishing, and I’m looking for worms.” That would be tacky.
At the west corner of the church, I located Rennie’s grave—and right beside lay three fairly large, squarish stones. I got it then! The telegram! A stone’s throw from the Church of Peter and Paul—a stone throw from the saints!
I got to work immediately. Fortunately, the pry bar I brought was hefty enough to move the rocks. Then, I began shoveling and went down three feet fairly quickly—and suddenly a dull thunk: Wood!
When I cleared away enough soil, I sprung the lid from a rotting crate. Even in muted moonlight, the coins—hundreds of them—shimmered like sunlight on water. Gold! Digging my hands in, I fairly couldn’t help myself as the deep coolness of metal overwhelmed. I raised a handful toward the moon, in thanks. Oh, God, GOLD!
In the adrenaline rush and excitement, I forget the details of getting home, but waking the next morning to sunlight and birdsong, I was still stunned at my discovery—and suddenly indecisive: What should I do now? Write up the mystery for the Ledger? Inform authorities? And just who owned gold? Maybe an insurance company could lay claim after all these years. That’s happened with old shipwrecks.
A lot of questions. A lot of mystery. A lot of puzzles: This called for coffee. I made and drank an entire pot, but the java didn’t jar my gold-induced stupor. Then inspiration! I remembered I had The Electric Elixir for Happiness, Health, and Longevity. What could it hurt?
I uncorked a bottle and poured some into my mug. I added two fingers of whiskey. The concoction fairly sizzled. The scents of cinnamon and sarsaparilla tickled my nose. I threw the tonic back—like one takes shots of Jagermeister on a Friday night binge.
What a wow! My eyes flickered wider. My pulse quickened. My nostrils cleared. My mined sharpened to a pointed focus acute: A lot of questions still to answer. Yes! A lot of mystery to solve. Yes! Puzzles aplenty! Yes! Was Rennie’s father really Patrick Church? Did Patrick know his brothers had robbed the stage? Had Rennie figured everything out? If so, why didn’t he go for the gold?
What did that matter! I had all that money, and sipping a drink that promised long life—I had all the time in the world to figure it out!
A glorious feeling this freedom: That’s what I was thinking, sipping the elixir, when came a knock at the door. Answering with my drink in hand, I found Deputy Jack and another sheriff had come calling.
“Hey cuz,” I said with much bonhomie. “How’s it going? Care for a nip this morning?”
But Deputy Jack just said, “Were you looking for worms last night?”
Copyright 2020. A version of this story appeared in the Downieville Messenger, Nov. 2020-Jan. 2021.