Fantasy Historical

The Gift of Gabby

By Matthew Hughes
Jan 5, 2019 · 5,741 words · 21 minutes

From the author: An origin story for Pacific City, a fictional Oregon metropolis that grew up to be the haunt of various superheroes. Find out more here:

The Gift of Gabby

by Matthew Hughes


Nobody knew where he came from or how he got here. Some used to say he’d come down the Willamette by canoe after jumping ship off a lumber carrier on the Columbia. Some said he’d lowered a boat off a side-wheeler steaming up the coast, taking nugget hunters to the Cariboo gold streams. And some said he’d come overland from back east, but most discounted that one, because he’d have needed a team and a wagon, or how else could he have brought a barrel of whiskey all that way?

Because that’s the part there could be no doubt about. One Sunday morning, those of us who worked at Captain Odlum’s sawmill woke up to find this big-bellied, short-legged, red-faced Englishman—“Yorkshireman,” he would correct us, though that never stuck—sitting on a barrel just the other side of the Captain’s property.

I was one of the dozen of us who went down from the bunkhouse to see what was what, so I remember the conversation.

Tucker, the foreman, said, “Who might you be?”

“I might be anybody,” the man said, “but the name’s Dunham, David Dunham.”

Tucker was set to ask the next question, which might have been, “What are you doing here?” though my money would have been on, “What’s in the barrel?”

But he didn’t get the chance because Dunham kept right on talking. “I was sitting here enjoying the morning and wondering if there might be a saloon in the vicinity.”

I stepped into the discussion at that point. “There is not,” I said, “and there can’t be because Captain Odlum is a true-blue teetotaler and won’t allow strong drink on his property.”

“Is that so?” said Dunham. He indicated the white stake pounded into the ground near where he was sitting on the barrel. “And would that be the limit of the Captain’s property?”

“It would.”

“And does anyone hold title to where I am sitting?”

“Nobody,” I said.

“But no saloon?”

Tucker told him there was a trading post a few miles up the river where you could get a bottle, though it was a long walk or an equally long paddle. But there wasn’t a saloon anywhere on this part of the Oregon coast.

“Then we have a problem,” Dunham said. “Because the barrel I’m sitting on contains rye whiskey and if it were only in a saloon I could tap it and stand you all to a drink.”

There was a long moment of silence during which he looked at us and we looked at the barrel and then we all looked at each other, until Tucker said, “Right.”

Tools fell from heaven and a certain number of planks and beams found their way down from the sawmill, along with the rest of the crew. The building we put up would not have won prizes but it was sturdy enough to contain twenty men, one barrel, and a freshly minted saloon keeper.

It was better whiskey than it needed to be and each man got a mugful on the house. After that it was five cents a shot, which all agreed was fair. Joseph Biddlecomb went up to the bunkhouse and came back down with his fiddle, and his drinks remained on the house as long as he kept playing.

It was a good-humored crowd, for the most part, except for a couple of sourpusses, like you’ll find in any crew. One of them was Walter Mathers, and once he’d put a few under his belt he began to bitch and moan and stir the pot. Before it got out of hand, I picked him up by his britches and collar and threw him out the door, which was not the first time I’d served him so.

Dunham called me over to where he was standing, behind the plank-and-trestle bar. “What do they call you?” he said.

“Hiram Bassington.”

He took a good look at me and said, “That cauliflower you call an ear, you got that prizefighting?”

I admitted as much. I used to tour with a traveling medicine show, and I would take on farm boys and such like who thought they could last three rounds with me.

He asked me, “Hiram, how much is Captain Odlum paying you to saw timber?”

I told him, and he said he’d double it if I came to work for him. “Plus meals and a reasonable daily allowance of drink.”

I took his offer, and thus I entered into my new career as what Dave Dunham called “his minder.”

That evening, Captain Odlum and his missus returned from church services up the river, where a lay preacher had pitched up by Mr. Woods’s lumber camp. He was not happy about the state in which he found his men and come morning he arrived at the saloon, now christened Gabby Dave’s. He brought a bullwhip, and I thought I might have to demonstrate my loyalty to the new employer by dealing with the old one.

But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, I got to see the strange quality for which Dave Dunham had earned his nickname. I suppose I had seen it the day before, when he had talked twenty men into building him a saloon for free, but that had not been much of a challenge. Captain Odlum, he was a different box of biscuits altogether.

Yet when they sat down on a bench the boys had made outside the front door of Gabby Dave’s—the Captain having sworn on the Bible he would never enter such an establishment—something happened. The easiest way to describe it is that Dunham had the gift of the gab, that he could charm a fish out of the sea if he had mind to do it. But that would only be saying he could do it, without saying how it was done.

And the truth is, though I heard him do it many’s the time, afterwards I couldn’t remember much at all of what he had said. There was just this rolling tide of words, like the rip tides that made the beaches so dangerous along this stretch of coast. One minute you’re standing in the sea, watching the waves come at you; the next, your feet are swept out from under and you’re being carried along beneath the water, going deeper and deeper, farther and farther from the light. That happened to me once, and I’m lucky to be here to tell the tale.

But there was one thing. When Gabby Dave started to talk, the people he was talking to would get a kinda dreamy-eyed look to them. It was like they weren’t seeing this stubby little fellow in front of them, with the comical accent and the checkered vest. They were seeing pictures in their heads, pictures that made them happy, and even after he stopped talking they would still have that look, as if the spell hung on and on.

I asked him once if it was some kind of magic. Back in the hill country I came from, there were folks who could lay a hex or tell you the right place to dig your well. He studied me for a while, then he said, “Hiram, didn’t you ever hear that bullshit baffles brains?”

Well, his bullshit always baffled me.  I still couldn’t tell you what Gabby Dave said to the Captain, though I was standing in the doorway the whole time. But the man went back to his sawmill with that kinda blank look on his face, like he was half sleepwalking. And Dunham turned to me and said, “Let’s get busy.”

We spent the working hours of the day with stakes and strings, pacing off sections of land, dividing them into lots. And he talked all the while through, saying as how he was homesteading the place according to the laws governing the Oregon Territory. Having marked off the land, put up a building, and “established domicile”—he did know a passel of fine and fancy words—the property was now his “in fee simple.”

“This will be a city, Hiram,” he told me. “One day, a great city full of men doing great deeds and women of great beauty. The grandeur of Rome, the topless towers of Troy, the Big Smoke of London will be as mere villages to the metropolis we are founding here on this auspicious day.”

And, do you know, when he was saying it I could almost see it: buildings rising into the sky, eight, ten stories high; wide and shady boulevards; men in top hats and ladies in furs stepping down from carriages; gaslights in the evening.

“By gar,” I said, “I believe you.”

“You keep on believing,” he told me. “Believing is what makes it happen.”

We had the saloon and we had the sawmill and we had the men who came down the river from Mr. Woods’s camp. And it turned out there were others in the area: trappers, homesteaders, some prospectors, a couple of brothers who were making salt out of seawater a little ways up the coast, using the same methods the Salish used to. They all came to Gabby Dave’s and it was a lively place, for sure.

I don’t know how he arranged it, but long before the barrel of whiskey was tapped dry a schooner came up from San Francisco and stopped in the bay. It unloaded fresh supplies: more whiskey and several barrels of beer, and even some bottles of wine in wooden cases. And once the cargo was stacked on the wharf, the ship’s barge made its last delivery.

Her name was Gertie Gladwell and her girls were Flo, Edie, and Mary Anne. They’d brought a tent, some cots, a few tables and chairs, plus a piano and a man who played it. His name was Walter, and he and I became good friends.

Gertie and Gabby Dave had a conversation and a deal was soon struck. He rented her the plot next door to the saloon and would supply her with beer and liquor at reasonable prices. And I would be available to resolve any disputes, for which I would be paid on a piecework basis. Or I could take my payment in kind which, as Gertie put it, would be another kind of piecework.

A month or so later, the trading post upriver relocated to another plot rented by Gabby Dave. Trade with the Salish tribes had petered out owing to the smallpox, so the trading post became our general store. And just like that, we had a town. We took to calling it Gabtown, although I’m told Mrs. Odlum refused to let that word pass her pursed lips.

The paddle wheelers that went between San Francisco and New Westminster had used to stop in our bay occasionally to take on firewood. Now those visits became a regular occurrence. While the cutwood was being taken on board, passengers would come ashore for a drink and to stretch their legs. Gertie’s place also drew quite a few interested parties. One of them, a prospector who’d done well out of a placer claim in the Cariboo, took to Gertie and she took to him. He elected to stay on when the steamer continued on south.

More people came: a blacksmith, a barber, a man who repaired shoes and harness, another who knew how to build boats. One come-by-chance who stepped off a steamer for a drink went back and got his trunk and set up as a doctor, though his skills were more like those of a vet. Every one of them rented not only a lot from Gabby Dave but a building to live and work in. Dunham now had a crew of six men who worked full time putting up new premises. He had two more fellows building boardwalks along the streets he’d laid out. The place was getting to look like a regular town.

The thing was, except for Captain Odlum, who was happy to be selling lumber straight out of his own sawmill, every square foot of space in Gabtown was owned by David Dunham, Esquire. That was how his name appeared on the letters that came up from San Francisco, each one of them certifying that he had title to this lot or that one because he had staked it and put a building on it.

As the town grew, I kind of grew with it. My responsibilities as Gabby Dave’s minder and Gertie’s bouncer expanded, until one day they called a meeting of the townsfolk and I was elected sheriff. Ozzie the blacksmith made me a star and Gabby’s crew built me a jail where I could let raucous drunks sleep it off.

There were even women and kids now. The barber and the cobbler had families that came out to join them once they knew they would be staying. Ozzie sent for a mail-order bride from back east, a big strapping woman who spoke only Swedish, but somehow they got along. There was talk about putting up a school if we could find someone to teach it, at which point Mrs. Odlum surprised us all by volunteering.

“We got us a town,” I said to Walter, who still played the piano at Gertie’s. We were standing at the bar in Gabby Dave’s—a real bar by that point, mahogany with a brass rail, shipped up from San Francisco—and enjoying a beer.

“We do at that,” he agreed. “And when the railroad comes” He spread his hands in a way that said, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

That was a funny thing, him mentioning the railroad. It was the first time I’d heard anybody say anything about one, but within a few days it was all anybody was talking about. People would go down and look at the bay and talk about was it deep enough for four-masted clipper ships to come in, and how there was plenty of space for docks and warehouses and the like. Pretty much everybody was talking about “the terminus.”

You see, this was just before the war between the states, and the railroads back east were reaching out into the western territories. Everybody knew that soon someone would start building a line from the west coast that would meet up with the one building from the east. They would meet up somewhere and we’d have ourselves a transcontinental railroad.

There were three possible routes across the mountains: a northern, a southern, and one in the middle. Nobody put much stock in the southerly route because part of it would have to go through Mexico and it wasn’t all that long since the USA had been at war with them folks. The middle route would come out at San Francisco, and that was a strong contender. But as everybody kept saying, it was all a matter of the snows in the mountain passes.

It wasn’t but a dozen years since the Donner Party had got snowed in on their way to California, and people had ended up chawing on each other. For the railroad to succeed, the surveyors had to pick a route that would have the least snow. There were plenty of people arguing for coming through Nebraska into Oregon—the northern route—and if that was so, they’d need to terminate at a harbor that could hold a lot of shipping.

We had that harbor. That’s why things went loco.

It was in May of 1859, a little more than a year since Gabby Dave had pitched up with that barrel of whiskey. We were now a town of maybe three hundred people—nobody was taking a census, but you saw new faces all the time. There was even a second saloon over on Third Street, though it took in only those who liked to mix their drinking and dancing with card games and faro.

The town was populous enough that there were men who loafed around on the docks—there were two wharves now—in case any boat came in that needed muscle to load or unload cargo. As part of my regular routine as sheriff, I would go down to the harbor once or twice a day, just to remind those idlers that if they took advantage of any new arrivals they’d get the benefit of my lead-weighted billyclub and spend a few days sawing firewood in the fenced yard behind the jail.

When I passed along the docks this spring morning, a couple of them wharf rats were arguing with each other whether the boat out in the bay was a ketch or a yawl. I don’t think either knew one from the other, and neither did I, but once they drew my attention to the vessel I stopped and took a long look at it.

It was a two-masted yacht with a low-roofed cabin between the masts, and it was tacking back and forth from one end of the bay to another. A man in the bow would swing a weighted line out into the water ahead of the bow, then when the boat came level with it he would haul it out, look at it, then shout something to another man back by the cabin. This fellow would make a mark on a big piece of paper spread on the cabin roof. Then the lead man would swing out his line again and repeat the process.

This went on for some time. At first I thought it might be some kind of fishing technique—there were salmon for the taking in the bay—until I asked one of the idlers what was going on.

“That man in the bow is taking soundings,” he told me. “And the one aft is making a chart of the bay.”

I didn’t hesitate. I was paid to keep an eye on the town, but my pay came from one particular individual. I gave the knowledgeable idler two bits and told him, “Get up to Gabby’s and tell Dave Dunham there’s something he needs to see down here.”

Five minutes later, my employer was standing beside me. He took a long look at the operation out on the water and said, “When the man who’s making the chart comes ashore, bring him to me.”

“What if he doesn’t want to be brought?” I said.

“He will.”

The man’s name turned out to be Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren – he insisted on the “Mister” – and he had come on that boat from San Francisco. He was a slick customer for sure, wore a top hat and some kind of necktie he called a cravat with a big pearl-headed pin stuck through it. He left his yacht out in the harbor and came ashore in a dinghy rowed by the man who’d slung the lead line. I met him, made sure he saw my star, and told him there was a man who wanted to see him.

He looked past me to the town and then to the sawmill camp beyond it. “The mill owner?” he said.

“The mayor,” I said. It wasn’t an official rank—we’d never held an election—but people had taken to calling Gabby Dave by that title, and it sounded right on this occasion.

“Fine,” said McLaren.

I took him to the saloon. Dilly Buncombe was behind the bar and he cocked his head toward the door in the back, which led through to the extra room Gabby had had built onto the original saloon once business had picked up.

Everybody else in the place turned to take in Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren because he was a sight to see, what with his little round spectacles and his ivory-headed cane. For his part, he looked like he hadn’t a care in the world as we arrived at Dave’s door and I knocked.

“Come in.”

I opened it, and there was my boss sitting at the desk he’d had brought up from the south. It had a leather top with a big green blotter in the middle of it. Standing in the middle of the green square was a bottle of the house’s best whiskey and a couple of glasses.

I looked at McLaren and saw a small smile come and go on his hard-featured face. He stepped past me and into the office.

“You need me?” I asked Gabby Dave.

“Not now,” he said.

I shut the door and went and got a beer from Dilly. The guys at the bar wanted to know what was what, so I told them about the boat and the chart. We all knew it meant something, but we didn’t know what. And nobody knew what Dunham and McLaren said to each other behind that closed door, but there was no doubt that meeting was what started what some later came to call “the bubble” and others called “the frenzy.”

One thing that struck me, though, was that when McLaren came out of his session with Dave Dunham, he didn’t have that dreamy-eyed look folks tended to show when they’d been on the receiving end of the gab.

He looked just as sharp-eyed and bushy-tailed as when he went in.

I can’t say I ever understood exactly what happened. After all, Dave used to say to me, “Hiram, I didn’t hire you for your brains.” But it seemed that, all this time the town had been building, Dave Dunham had owned all the land from the bay right up to Captain Odlum’s property line, and somehow he’d managed to get what he called “an option” to buy that piece too, though the price was ridiculous.

Everybody who had a house or a business in the town had got a lease from Gabby Dave. When he found out I could write my name, he had me witness a lot of those leases. I’m not too good at reading, but I know numbers, and those leases were dirt cheap—I’d heard people saying that over the year. I figured Gabby rented them cheap because more people in the town meant more customers for Gabby’s. But now it started to get crazy.

Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren came up from San Francisco again and this time he brought with him a strongbox full of money: bank notes, and leather sacks full of ten- and twenty-dollar gold pieces. Him and Dave, they told me to empty out the jail and put that trunk in one of the cells. And I wasn’t to leave the jail—not even for the outhouse—except when Dave was there to spell me off.

I spent three days more locked in than any of my prisoners had ever been, while a crew built McLaren a building. It wasn’t frame-and-slab siding like everything else in town. It was solid logs held in place with ten-inch spikes. The windows were small and had strong iron bars set in them, and I don’t reckon you could have stove in that front door with a battering ram.

When the walls were up and the roof was on, Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren moved in and I made sure he and his box of money made the journey unmolested, walking him and it every step of the way with a double-barreled shotgun in my hands, cocked and ready to cut loose.

Later, people asked me if I’d looked in that strongbox while I was guarding it. And the answer is, I never did, cause it was locked and wrapped with chains. But it was heavy as gold and it clinked when he moved it.

Anyway, it didn’t matter, because that box of money was just the match that lit the fuse.

It got to be a regular occurrence. Dave would say, “Come with me, and bring your shotgun,” and I would accompany him from the saloon over to what folks were calling “Fort McLaren.” Dave would go in and I’d wait inside, then when he came out I’d cover him again until we were back at the saloon, when he would disappear into the back room for a while. Over the next few days he made that trip several times. He went carrying papers. He returned carrying stuffed envelopes and bags whose contents clinked.

The rumor went around that Gabby was selling the leases on all the lots he’d rented out to people as they arrived and got settled into Gabtown. After working hours one evening, the saloon filled up with anxious townsfolk who wanted to know where they stood. Dave got up on a chair and kinda patted the air to quiet them down.

“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said. “Those are unbreakable five-year leases and they’re renewable for five more years if you want to renew. By the time the second five years is up, you’ll have had practically free accommodation for ten years and you’ll be able to afford a fair market rent. There’s even a clause in there that lets you buy the property.”

And then he started to talk about the town and all its promise, and the money that would come rolling in once the railroad came over the mountains from back east. I can’t tell you what he said, word for word, because I got caught up in the pictures, like always happened when Dave got to gabbing.

So things settled down and people paid their little bits of rent to Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren instead of Dave Dunham, and life went on same as always.

Until a side-paddle steamer came into the bay and unloaded a whole crowd of men in sharp suits and fancy waistcoats, carrying carpetbags. And they descended on Fort McLaren like locusts on croplands.

Those carpet bags turned out to be full of money. I seen it myself, this time, because Dave sent me over to stand behind McLaren with my shotgun on full display, right next to the big chart of the harbor that showed where deep-water ships could come in and anchor.

These folks had come to buy the leases, and they weren’t going to take no for an answer. They were offering thousands of dollars for the paper on a single lot, but McLaren he just looked at them with his beady-eyed stare through his little round glasses and faced them down.

“No leases are for sale,” he said, “and won’t be for ten years.” That caused an uproar but he waited for it to die down. Then he said, “But I will sell options to buy those leases, ten years from now.”

That brought some mutterings and fussbudgeting, but then he said, “Gentlemen, the railroad won’t get here before ten years.”

And that set off the uproar again. One man dug into his carpetbag and said, “A thousand dollars for an option on any lot within a hundred feet of the docks. He waved a wad of cash under McLaren’s pointy nose.

“Two thousand!” said a man farther back in the crowd, pushing forward and slapping his own wad down on the desk. And so it went, with the offers climbing. McLaren stood and spoke to me over his shoulder. I set my shotgun down and drew my leaded billyclub. When I rapped it on the desk, things settled down sharp like.

“Five thousand a lot,” said McLaren, “take it or leave it.”

They took it. Right then and there, Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren sold options on more than seventy lots, stamping each document with a notary’s stamp while I signed as a witness. Like I say, I can figure numbers, and that amounted to a lot of money. The next day, another raft of speculators arrived, and they bought options on all the rest of the leases in town, so that more than a hundred options were sold. Which was even more money.

It all went into McLaren’s strongbox, which was empty when the sale started but full to bursting when it ended. But that wasn’t the end of it. That was only the beginning. More carpetbaggers arrived in the following days and if you think they went away disappointed, you have never seen a land-sale bubble. They infested Gabby Dave’s saloon so badly the usual customers couldn’t drink in peace. And all they did was sell each other options then resell them to a new bidder.

The ones who’d got in early sold their five thousand-dollar pieces of paper to newcomers for ten thousand, fifteen, twenty. There were men who made a hundred thousand-dollar profit in three days and departed on the southbound steamer, smoking cigars and smiling.

McLaren was smiling, too, though Gabby Dave was looking a little down in the mouth. Folks reckoned Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren had been one too many for our town’s founder, and some sympathy came Dave’s way. But while the carpetbaggers were in town, everybody who sold anything raised their prices and earned a year’s rent in a week or so.

Everybody was happy. New buildings were going up, more ships were coming into the port, business was good. The carpetbaggers left, taking their money with them, but having left quite a lot of it behind. And most were glad to see them go, because they’d also brought with them men they’d hired for protection, men who bristled with pistols and knives and made a lot of folks mighty nervous—particularly the sheriff.

And then came the fire.

It started on a day that the wind was strong and in the north. Near as anyone could figure it, the wind fired up some smoldering embers of a slash fire in the woods where they were cutting cedar for Captain Odlum’s sawmill. It was summer and pretty dry, and with all those trimmed branches on the ground it was like somebody had laid a bonfire and put a match to it.

Thank goodness it came in the afternoon and not the night. The first we knew of it was when the smoke from the slash burning suddenly started piling up on the horizon and the first sparks came flying into town. Ozzie the blacksmith had made an iron triangle to beat on if anyone spotted a fire in town and before too long somebody was beating on it with an iron bar.

The whole town came out, as happens when someone sounds a fire alarm in a place built of woodbut by then it was already too late to do anything. The fire to the north was a wall of flame and the wind was driving it down on us as fast as a man could walk. As we watched, it came down on Captain Odlum’s mill and his roofs started to burn.

Him and his wife were already running down the road into town carrying nothing but Mrs. Odlum’s family Bible, and with his crew coming after them. By the time they got to where we were standing and looking, you could already feel the heat of the firefront. The smoke was thickening and it wasn’t sparks landing now, it was flaming pieces of trees and sawmill settling on roofs and setting the town ablaze.

We ran. There was nothing else to do.

We ran to the tidal flats south of town, struggling through the mud and out into the shallow part of the bay. We could still feel the heat as the town went up, and burning stuff fell on us so we were all busy throwing hatfuls of water onto anybody who was unlucky enough to get touched by the fire.

We watched our town burn, along with everything we owned. It all went up quick, and by nightfall the fire had swept inland when the wind came off the sea. We went and poked among the ashes and called out people’s names, dreading that we might not get an answer.

But everybody was accounted for.

Everybody except Dave Dunham and Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren.

There was nothing left of the saloon or Fort McLaren but gray ash and blackened stumps of timbers. People looked, but found no shriveled up corpses. And no strongboxes, for that matter.

And then somebody thought to go down to the harbor and look for McLaren’s yacht. It had been anchored well out in the bay since the day he arrived. It wasn’t there now. Maybe one or both of them took off that way while the rest of the townsfolk were wading through mud, and headed onward to some other place when they saw what the fire had left. Or maybe they went up in ash themselves. Either way, we never saw either of them again.

That was it for Gabtown, and could have been it for the whole region too. But the fire had burned only wood and cloth. The steam-powered saws at Captain Odlum’s mill could still be put back to use. The harbor was still there.

So we rebuilt. I would even say we built it better than before. And when the railroad finally came throughwhich was a hard poke in the eye to poor San Franciscothe place we had by this time called Pacific City became a going concern, and we never looked back.

Now I’m an old man and we’re going into the twentieth century as a real city—tall buildings, concrete sidewalks, gaslights up and down every street, even some automobiles. Not every man’s deeds are great and not all the women are beauties, though we’ve had a share of both. But it seems to me that nowadays no one pays much mind to what came before all this glory. As a rule, the citizens of this place have their eyes fixed on that fine and bountiful future Gabby Dave could cause to appear in our minds.

It may well be that I’m the last man who recalls them that set us on the road to where we’ve arrived. And I’ve often wondered, as the years have piled up, whether Dave Dunham and Mister Christopher Clifton McLaren ever really believed we’d be the terminal city for the transcontinental railroad. Whether they just saw us as a gaggle of fools to be plucked clean by a pair of grifters.

But I guess it doesn’t matter.  Sometimes I’ve told my grandchildren, “Pacific City is a magical city because it was founded on a magical lie. But the really magical part was when the lie became truth.”



This story originally appeared in Welcome to Pacific City.

Matthew Hughes

I'm writing fantasy and science fiction, often in a Jack Vance mode.