Monday, 12 May 2014

How Big Walsh Held His Own

How "Big Walsh" Held His Own.
by Frank Rose.
ILLUSTRATED BY DUDLEY TENNANT.
From The Wide World magazine, 1918. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, April, 2014.

"Big Walsh" was an American miner, and herein the Author relates a thrilling experience he had in Bolivia “I have compiled the narrative,” he writes, “from statements made to me by the miner in question. These data were subsequently confirmed by several residents in the city of Oruro, and can therefore be accepted as absolutely correct. The names are slightly changed, and that is all.

IT is most refreshing in this world, with its large proportion of colourless "me-toos,” and “same-here’s,” once in a while to come across a person of real individuality, a landmark, a pillar of strength amongst the spineless, uninteresting majority. Such a person was John Walsh, of whom I wish to tell.
I met him during my early adventurous days in Bolivia, far up amongst those wastes of salt and borax, nitrate and mineral ore. Up amongst the clouds as it were, at three miles elevation above the Pacific and hundreds of miles inland, up there in the dreary wastes of mountain and rock and dazzling plateau, where strange things happen and where man must battle with Nature and with human beings even less kind.
Big Walsh—as we always called him—was from Missouri, and he had a habit of letting you know this fact early in his first conversation with you.
He was a very tall, squarely-built man, of great strength. But the wonderful trait about him was his marvellous personality. He was not a bully by any means, for a more kindly, generous, reasonable man to deal with one could not desire to meet. But when thwarted or about to be overwhelmed by difficulties and disaster, his amazingly forceful character stood out chiselled in granite for all to see.
When I first met him he had just returned from a gold-washing expedition amongst the riverbeds of the higher reaches of the Beni tributaries.
He, with two friends, Smith and Talbot, had contracted “gold-fever,” and—determined to try their luck—had, after considerable difficulty and danger, reached the Tuiche River, where during three months they had washed for gold with fair success.
Then the rather imperious attitude which they assumed had angered the savage tribes thereabouts, and things began to look bad for the three adventurers, for these wild, naked Indians are adepts in cunning and treachery.
At last the gold-searchers had to desist from their quest and prepare to return to civilization.
During the journey back to La Paz they in an evil moment heard that bodies in those parts were buried with heavy gold ornaments, and their cupidity was aroused.
Walsh—who had never laid claim to any beatific sanctitude—admitted to me that, tempted by the apparent ease with which the yellow metal could be procured, they had opened a number of graves in an ancient Indian burial-ground and purloined some such ornaments.
Not for long did the defilers of those ancient tombs escape the vengeance of the natives. The desecration was at once discovered, a frantic cry for punishment of the offenders went up, and a few nights later they were ambushed, when only a few days from La Paz. In the unequal fight which ensued these three—who, overcome by the foul lust for gold, had thus dishonoured their race—were overcome after defending themselves like lions.
Smith and Talbot had been killed and Big Walsh was left for dead. He had, indeed, sustained such dire wounds that had he been an ordinary mortal he surely would also have succumbed.
But next morning he had regained consciousness to find the savages had decamped, carrying away everything of value, their hard-won and ill-gotten gold included. The wounded giant had crawled crab-like to an adjacent stream, had bathed his wounds, and bound them up, though in sorry fashion.
He had struggled on for several days, he hardly knew how, and was subsequently rescued by a picket of Bolivian soldiers and taken to La Paz.
In the kaleidoscopic turmoil of my own adventurous career I lost sight of my strange friend until some four years later.
We met at Oruro, in which town he related to me the recent remarkable experiences which had befallen him in the neighbourhood.
For a long while after his unfortunate and nearly fatal gold-washing expedition to the north he had suffered ill-luck and continual reverses.
Then by pure chance he had discovered traces of tin, and by much laborious effort had in time developed a really rich working. After a time he was able to employ a score of Chilean labourers, more difficult to handle than the local people, but much better workers.
For a time all went well, until one day, being unable to obtain cash in time to cover his pay-roll, his men had become troublesome.
Big Walsh was not one to put up with any nonsense, and to assert his authority effectually he had thrashed the ringleader.
This only added fuel to the smouldering fires of Chilean wrath and hatred. Venganza was sworn, and the American miner found himself in deadly peril. But his stout spirit quailed not, nor did he even dream of leaving his solitary hut. This was not the Walsh way of meeting trouble; he merely took down and cleaned his weapon, a much-used Winchester rifle, loaded it, and then likewise loaded his capacious pipe and calmly awaited developments.
They did not delay long in arriving.
Walsh, tough old campaigner as he was, lived quite alone in a small shanty, fixed with the barest necessities. He had a faithful old watchman, whose duty it was to guard the workings and to report every night to his master that all was well.
The night of the trouble was dark and stormy and still; no moon shone, and even the stars seemed shrouded by the stormy clouds which scudded across an angry sky.
Later, distant rumblings were heard which seemed to shake the very earth. A storm was brewing and might at any moment break with the terrifying violence customary at these electrically charged altitudes.
Big Walsh, quite oblivious to threats of elements and of man, lay on his back upon his canvas-covered catre, quietly reading a much-thumbed book on mineralogy.
Hearing a knock at the door, our friend, thinking it was the watchman and suspecting nothing, hastened to open it, only to find himself confronted by a dozen or more of his men, excited by liquor.
With the foulest of curses they rushed at their erstwhile master and intended victim, but the Missourian with a sweep or two of his powerful arms, hurled them back and succeeded in closing his door.
The attacking party, who mostly had firearms, besides the inevitable knife, started a regular fusillade on the hut, which was none too strong.
Walsh had at once darkened his only room and proceeded in his usual grim manner to exact heavy toll of his numerous assailants.
Crouching stealthily beside his little window he patiently awaited his chance, and as a figure would be dimly distinguishable he would fire with deadly precision, seldom failing to “wing” his quarry.
In this manner he placed three hors de combat and slightly wounded several others. Thus, bravely and cleverly, he fought, but the odds were too great even for the redoubtable Yankee.
The assailants were Chileans and were consequently most determined fighters. By attacking simultaneously, they gave him all he could do to beat them off. At last, when one of them, more daring than the rest, climbed to the roof and commenced to fire down through it and the second shot penetrated the little table at which Walsh was just then standing, he began to realize that his position was becoming untenable and resolved upon a bold course. He would make a sortie. It was typical of the very nature of the man to conceive this daring plan.
Having quickly loaded up all his remaining cartridges, he stealthily unfastened the door, and then when the moment seemed propitious, opened it and rushed out.
Thanks to the surprise—for his enemies little suspected that even he would adopt such tactics and to the darkness, also to the fact that he sprinted in a zigzag course, he managed to reach the cover of some rocks without a single shot touching him.
Dropping out of sight, he waited. Then as the men—now more wary—approached, he fired with his usual caution and precision, causing them to fall back once more.
After thus repulsing them momentarily, he would retire to more distant cover, and with such skill did he do this that, in the end, he actually succeeded in evading the whole gang. For after warily stalking and firing at what looked like the American’s head, showing above a rock, they at last managed to hit it, only to discover that they had been tricked, as their target had been merely his much-worn hat.
Meanwhile the wily Missourian had, under cover of the night, made good his escape. During all this fighting he had only received a slight wound in the shoulder. Then the threatening storm broke in all its mad violence, the heavens opened, the lightning crackled, whilst torrential rains fell in hissing masses.
Having had perforce to shelter for a while from the tempest, no sooner had it begun to abate than Big Walsh resumed his course, and all the rest of that night he stolidly tramped towards Oruro—for all this drama had been enacted some four leagues from that adobe-constructed town. He reached there just after five in the morning. It might be supposed that he at once sought out the police, to report how he had been attacked by his men; but yet again I must say—this was not Walsh’s way.
He looked up his friend Cameron, who fitted him out with a fresh stock of ammunition for his Winchester, and also lent him a couple of good revolvers.
Without even a rest—delaying only to make a hearty meal—this intrepid fellow set out for his mine again, prepared to fight his way back to possession of his property.
But upon his arrival he was surprised to find the whole place deserted. So he coolly took up his old quarters and resumed his former life, as if nothing untoward had occurred to disturb it.
However, his Chilean enemies had meanwhile informed the police, giving their version of the whole affair, and a few days later a couple of soldiers came from the Oruro authorities to arrest him.
Walsh curtly refused to have anything to do with them, telling them that they had better bring someone in authority. So off they went to report.
The following day an officer with ten men galloped up to his door, peremptorily demanding his immediate surrender.
As Walsh naively explained to me, he could not very well resist the whole Bolivian army, but he did parley until the officer promised that—conditionally upon his surrender without resistance—he would be well treated and not deprived of his arms.
So Big Walsh, the invincible, gave in, and sorry for it he soon was, too.
For, once outside, the officer—with a delightful disregard for his solemn promise had him seized, and after a fierce struggle, in which he nearly choked two soldiers, he was thrown down, disarmed, and bound.
He was then brusquely ordered to march, which for a time he did. Then, feeling the ignominy of walking whilst these monkey-soldiers rode, he stopped and stolidly refused to move another step.
The officer bullied and threatened, but all to no effect, or rather the real effect was quite contrary to his expectations, for he found that, armed as he was and with half-a-score of men at his command, there was a something in the hard, steely eyes of this tied-up giant of men which he dared not meet with his own debauched and bloodshot gaze.
Eventually the officer, with a muttered curse, ordered one of his men to dismount and let this determined prisoner ride into Oruro.
On arrival he was lodged in jail.
The wheels of justice rotate slowly in Bolivia, and the Walsh case dragged on for a long time. His appeal against the imprisonment with which he was to be punished for so bravely defending himself went to the United States Minister and was duly transmitted back to Sucre, which was then the capital of Bolivia—La Paz not yet having revolted to change this.
Meanwhile Big Walsh’s wonderful personality was asserting itself in a truly remarkable manner. To such an extent did he dominate those around him that, incredible as it may seem, he practically ruled the Oruro jail. He made such a fuss about his quarters that at last the Commandante, in sheer desperation, gave up his own room to him.
Then he insisted upon being allowed out daily for exercise, and a guard was sent with him, who became virtually Walsh’s servant.
He was well received by all the foreign residents, who delighted to show hospitality to this worthy representative of Uncle Sam. Upon one occasion he made his servant-guard so drunk that the latter had to be carried back by his prisoner. The American slung the drunken fellow on his shoulder and carried him through the streets—much to the delight of the populace, and presenting himself with his burden to the officer in charge coolly asked that a better specimen be detailed to wait upon him in future.

When the wheels of diplomacy had revolved in their ponderous manner and the order came to release him, Walsh refused te leave, declaring he would stay until he had received compensation for his false imprisonment of several months. After some time a compromise was reached. I believe the Bolivian Government did have to pay a considerable sum, and Big Walsh left his “ hotel,” as he termed it, after making the whole garrison drunk in his honour.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.