This happened in 1899, when the century was about to turn, twenty-five years after the city of Forge was incorporated and named after its founder and first family, twenty-five years after Richard Forge Sr. had pooled resources with the wheat farmers in the area, all the big landowners, to found the Bank of Forge. Wheat prices had been falling throughout that summer. On a trading floor in Chicago, men who had never seen the Central Valley of California shouted the prices that would be paid, and the falling prices were reported in the Forge Argus, and in the Stockton Bee, and in the newspapers that came in by train from San Francisco. The out of town papers also reported a bank failure in the town of Lux, a cotton town to the south. And a rumor grew that when the crops were sold, and the crop loans couldn’t be met, the bank would fail.
Richard Forge had been a young man when the bank was founded, a young man among the other young men in the region who had broken ground and found it good for wheat, and a leader among them. He had been the one to direct and order the town’s incorporation, the one to lay out the streets on a grid, the one to foresee the need for a bank. But he had not foreseen that some of his friends, the original investors in the bank, would begin quietly to withdraw funds when rumors started. And he had not foreseen that the wires requesting capital through Western Union would be read by the operators, and be repeated, and feed the rumors.
By mid-morning on a Friday in August, a Friday that had begun like any other, the cool, marble-floored lobby of the bank began to fill with people, all come to withdraw their savings. When someone finished a transaction at one of the eight brass-barred teller windows, people surged toward that window, and some began to shout and push. In his office, Richard Forge heard that customers were all making withdrawals, and he came into the lobby. He had talked to the ruined bank president from Lux, who told him that once the line reached into the street where it could be seen by all and become a mock and a show, the run was unstoppable. Once that happened, the president said, the bank run would grow monstrous, and swallow the bank.
He asked everyone waiting to form a line that doubled back on itself, but by noon the bank lobby was full, and the line for withdrawals grew out through the doors, out onto the hot and narrow sidewalk. Men and women stood in the line, faces drawn and anxious, passbooks curled and damp in their sweated hands. They clung to the storefronts on the west side of Central, leaned into the thin cliff of shade, shuffled forward a step at a time. When the end of the line reached the barbershop, the barber finished the man in the chair, and turned his sign to Closed, and joined the line himself.
Then Richard Forge hoped only to get to five o’clock before the bank ran out of funds. He told his tellers to count out money two or three times, to slow withdrawals. He had back room employees stand in line to ask for their money in pennies. Anything to slow the run, so that the brass teller windows could shut, and the tall bronze doors between the granite columns could close, and the weekend intervene – anything to make time enough for rumors to calm, trust recover. He left the bank once for Western Union to send a wire, to again plead for funds, and returning he paused at the top of the broad stairs leading to the bank’s entrance. The line of people extended down Central Street, past all the small, glass-windowed shops – past Fabian’s General Merchandise, and the Forge Saloon, and Ludwig’s Cigar Store, the Oddfellow’s Lodge, Gullo’s Groceries, Andersen’s Plumbing and Hardware, past the offices of the Argus, crossing streets and ending finally just south of the railroad tracks. Hundreds of people.
At quarter to five, Forge stood in his office and smoothed down his blue, Brooks Brothers suit. He adjusted his tie in the collar of his white shirt – one of the white shirts laundered and starched for him by the dozens several times a month – and made sure his diamond stickpin was in place. He shot his cuffs, checked the gold cufflinks monogrammed with an F. Then he took his hat from the rack and strode out into the lobby.
They were all men and women he knew, all residents of the small city or the surrounding farms. He had opened accounts for them, given them loans, taken their deposits, made their payrolls. These were farmers, engineers and firemen and conductors and mechanics, the barber and the blacksmith and the schoolteacher, saloonkeepers and maids and haulers, and the plain, firm-chinned ladies in high collars and white gloves who ran their households with strict budgets.
He walked along them, all the faces he knew, and nodded and smiled. Most refused to meet his eyes, looked down, muttered. Some looked past him at the large grandfather clock, looked at the line ahead, tightened their mouths. He smiled and began to talk to no one in particular, light, jovial, unconcerned. “No need to worry. I’ve been in touch with the reserve bank in San Francisco. Plenty of capital to fulfill each and every demand. It will be here Monday morning before opening. Plenty of cash on hand.”
He put on his hat and passed through the doors, out of the cool marble interior of the bank and onto the street, and many faces turned toward him, worried, hopeful, shined with perspiration. He greeted people by name, kept up the same patter. “No need to worry. An influx of the bank’s reserves, currently held in San Francisco, Monday morning. You’ll see me greeting the 6:10 train myself, to supervise the transfer of funds.”
“Should we just go home for now?” a carpenter in overalls asked.
“Well.” Forge took his watch from his pocket and frowned. “I’ve got every teller working, but I don’t know that we’ll get to everyone. Monday morning, though. Business as usual.”
“I’m waiting.” Kent, a wiry and mean-eyed harness maker spoke with a bitter smile. He had come directly from his shop, and he still wore a leather toolbelt hung with awls and shears. “I’m waiting, and if you don’t make good today, I’ll be here bright and early on Monday.”
“Monday morning will be fine, Mr. Kent. Normal business hours.”
“Yah.” Kent shifted the chaw of tobacco in his lip and spat a thin stream of juice into the gutter. “We’ll see.”
Richard Forge Sr. was sweating by the time he returned to the bank lobby, and he took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his pocket handkerchief. The lines had advanced, and those who succeeded in making a withdrawal tucked it away carefully and then stole out of the bank, as though ashamed of getting away with something while others were still at risk. Forge smiled at them politely, to let them know that there was nothing untoward in requesting a withdrawal.
Then the grandfather clock began to chime, one two three four five, and all the tellers did as they had been instructed, and completed the transaction of the person at the counter before swinging the brass bars of the teller’s cage shut. Those inside the bank had hoped that they, at least, would be able to withdraw their money, and as the small cage doors were shut and locked, they moaned, and the line broke down, and people began to mill about in the lobby, and some shouted demands that their money belonged to them, and they had a right to it that day.
Forge walked to the rear of the lobby, beside the gate that led to the back offices, and he held up his hands for quiet. The bank detective stood beside him, dressed in a blue uniform with a billy club dangling from his belt. When Forge had the attention of all, he repeated what he had been saying all along. That the bank would be open normal hours on Monday. That the bank’s reserves were coming from San Francisco. That all requests for withdrawals would be met. Then he passed through the gate and locked it behind him, and left it to the bank detective to slowly disperse the crowd and lock the bronze doors that led to the street.
Richard Forge Sr. did not go home that evening. He retired to his office at the rear of the bank building, a cool and spacious office he had designed for himself when he had the building constructed. Bookshelves in dark-stained wood extended to the ceiling, filled with volumes of history, classics, memoirs of leading Californians, as well as books on the businesses of agriculture and transportation, the twin pillars of Forge. A thick Webster’s on a dictionary stand in one corner, a globe on a stand in another. One wall with a large map of the county that showed every road, every field, every waterway, every railroad line. On another wall, the plaques of appreciation from the California Bankers Association, the Southern Pacific, the local fire department. The framed proclamation he had read aloud from the gazebo in the town square on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Forge’s incorporation. In the center of his office was his large walnut desk, carved with spiral columns on the corners, matching walnut chairs facing it for conferences, and against the wall opposite, a long divan upholstered in green velvet.
He sat in the office chair, leaned back, looked up at the maps on the wall above the divan.
There was no one left to contact, and he wondered if one of the men in the Western Union office had read his urgent pleas that day – pleas that had gone unanswered. Then he knew. Of course his wires had been read. The run would continue Monday.
There were papers and ledgers scattered on his desk, and he took some time neatening them up. Mrs. Hall, his secretary, normally did filing at the end of the day, but he had told her to go home. He knew where everything belonged. He placed the many mortgage documents the bank held into cabinets in the outer offices, and the crop loan documents under the names of those landowning families, his friends and investors, with whom he had done business for decades. The ledger books were filed on one of the lower shelves within his office.
Then he went to the wall safe, a small safe that he used rarely. He spun the dial right to a number, left around twice to another number, right to a third number. Then left, and the bolts slid into their cylinders and the door opened. Inside the safe was a revolver, a Smith & Wesson with filigrees on the handle chased with gold. It had been a gift to him from the city council on the occasion of that twentieth anniversary speech, and he had fired it once only, to signal the beginning of fireworks later that evening. He took it out and closed the safe and spun the dial to lock it, then returned to the chair. He leaned back, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth, set his teeth onto the unfamiliar hardness of it.
He took it out suddenly and stepped to the coatrack, where he kept a scarf for days that turned unexpectedly cold. He took the scarf, a warm plaid in red and green. Sat again in his chair and wrapped the scarf carefully and tenderly around the back of his head. Put the barrel of the gun again in his mouth.
Richard Forge Jr. boarded the first train he could back to Forge after he heard the news, a night train pulling freight that left at midnight from the Oakland yards. He climbed into the caboose, still in his business suit, and tossed his grip in the corner. On the small platform at the back of the car, he felt the steam engine gather the weight of the cars to it, hesitate for a moment, then begin to haul them all. The train gradually snaked its way out of the yard, clacking slowly over switches until the eastbound rails narrowed down to three, to two, to one. Then the train picked up speed, and Richard gazed back at the red signal lights of the railroad and the glary white lights strung on wires above the loading docks, and he saw them dwindle. Behind him in San Francisco was his wife, Joan, the daughter of one of the big wheat farmers, and his son Noah, only five years old, growing up far away from the town named after his family.
The train bore Richard through dark valleys and up into the Diablo Range, and he stood on the platform and felt the wind in his hair, smelled the soot from the burning coal, saw the summer stars. As the train crested the summit and passed into the Central Valley, he felt a burden waiting for him – the town named for his family, the bank with his family name carved into granite on the façade. At times, in San Francisco, he had wished he was not his father’s son, he had wished that he and Joan could just make a good and prosperous life in the city, as their friends did. A place in Cow Hollow. Tickets to the opera. Lowell High School for Noah someday. But his father had always told him that he would be the bank president someday. His father had directed him to Cal, his father directed him to work at Wells Fargo in the City, and learn the business, and make contacts. And now he was returning to Forge, and to the bank, and he felt his father’s dead hand still directing him, to take up the task he himself had failed, and Richard both missed his father and bitterly blamed him for abandoning him.
On Saturday, Richard left his mother in black mourning in the care of his two older, unmarried sisters. He went straight to the bank, not stopping at Casselman’s Funeral Parlor where his father’s body was being prepared for visitation, and spent the day in the outer offices with Mrs. Hall and one senior employee. He didn’t want to work in his father’s office.
He learned that the bank held paper on nearly all the land surrounding Forge, mortgages and crop loans on all the wheat fields that shipped their crops through the Forge depot. Yet he could also see the owners of those fields, some of them original shareholders in the bank, beginning to siphon funds out of the bank as wheat prices dropped. They were afraid that the prices would be so low that the crop loans would default, and they were shielding themselves from their own failure and putting the bank at risk. And keeping their money where? Maybe Wells Fargo. Maybe Bank of Italy. Maybe in their mattresses.
Then he found the record of Henry Goodling, Joan’s father, his own father-in-law. Henry farmed a thousand acres of wheat, and Richard remembered how satisfied his father had been when he and Joan decided to marry. The son of the banker marrying the daughter of a big landowner. The way things were supposed to work. Henry Goodling had withdrawn his money, just like every other large landowner.
Word of the withdrawals had gotten out. It always does somehow. A run begins with a trickle. And Richard saw his father, unwilling or unable to see himself betrayed, bewildered at how the rules had changed, still thinking that appearing in a good three piece suit flanked by the granite columns of the bank’s façade was enough. The man who had always seemed a giant to Richard looked now shrunken and weak, a paper man, torn down easily by men who had been his friends.
“Those bastards,” Richard said.
Richard called the meeting on that Sunday morning. He summoned all the shareholders, the big landowners, the owners of the largest hotel and the general store, and also one non-shareholder – Skipper Cook, the railroad boss, the Southern Pacific’s top executive in Forge. Richard told them to skip church that day, the Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans and Catholics could do without their presence for one Sunday, though if the congregations wanted to send a prayer or two their way, it would be welcome.
Richard chose to have the meeting in the president’s office, that same office where his father had turned the revolver on himself. The shareholders came wearing suits dark and sober, dark ties, white shirts with stiff collars so that each had to hold his head erect. Some of them still wore the thick moustaches or beards common twenty years ago, though now their hair all was gray or white. They greeted each other with quiet voices, then saw the young Richard standing behind his father’s desk, and one by one they offered their sympathy, said how sorry they were to hear of his father’s passing. When Henry Goodling shook Richard’s hand, Richard nodded his head unsmiling.
As the shareholders sat, they looked at the wall behind the desk, at a white hole drilled into the plaster, white cracks spreading from it into the dark green paint. Not even covered up. And there, pushed against the wall beneath the bullet hole, the death chair, the very chair in which their old friend, a man of their own age, had died. While they looked, Richard paced behind the desk, unstill and waiting, and the men sat stiffly and cast their eyes from the bullet hole, to the chair, to the son of the man, pacing. They were older men, as old or older than the man who had killed himself in this office, and though they were solid in the chest and leg, strong from farm work and farm food, they had each felt the finger of death brush their cheek when they heard about the suicide.
Richard wore a light camelhair coat from a men’s store on Post Street, the only one in the office not dressed darkly, and he had a list of names on the desk blotter that he checked off as men came in. When all were present, he greeted the last and asked Mrs. Hall to leave and close the door.
The men had expected a quiet meeting, they expected to speak with quiet respect about the man, Richard Forge Sr., whose family had given the city its name, who had founded the bank and been its president for twenty-five years. Despite the peremptory tone of the summons to the meeting, they also expected respect for themselves, their years and experience, deference from the man they still thought of as Junior. They expected to talk to him about how to cushion the blow from the bank’s failure, that now seemed inevitable to them, as inevitable as the funeral procession that would follow from the church to the town’s cemetery. Some had imagined they would be asked for advice, and were ready with counsel.
They were not prepared for the accusations the young Richard launched at them. He paced back and forth and accused them by name of fearfulness, cowardice, lack of faith. He accused them of pulling out their money because they didn’t believe in their crops, and hiding their money in pillowcases, and huddling over their little piles like scared children. He told them that they had caused the bank run, starting it slowly weeks ago. Did they think that no one would notice that all the big men in town were drawing down their money? Did they think no one would talk? People always talked, and now everyone from the schoolteacher to the barber wanted their money out of the Bank of Forge.
Pop Simmons, the oldest man there, stood up from his straight-backed chair. He took his pipe out of his suit pocket and pointed the stem at Richard. “Ain’t a man here did a thing wrong,” he said. “Not a thing wrong in taking out your own money.”
“You, Pop.” Richard glanced down at a paper on the desk. “You want me to tell everyone how much you took out? You were one of the first.”
“Don’t care if you do,” Pop came back.
“And how many years did my father carry your mortgage, and roll it over, and give you the money to buy what you need every spring?”
“I’m a shareholder. I helped found this bank. Your father didn’t do that, the bank did.”
“The bank did,” Richard agreed. “And right now, I’m the majority shareholder. So when I speak, just take it that I’m the bank. I know two figures. The money you took out, and the dollar amount on your mortgage. And they don’t match, do they Pop?”
“So what if they don’t?”
Richard tapped his finger on the table, tapped right on the name Theodore Simmons. “I can sell your paper tomorrow. Sell it cheap to Wells Fargo. I know a trader there who gobbles up paper on Central Valley land.”
“You can’t do that.”
“The hell I can’t.” Richard looked around the room, looked at all the old men sitting back, suddenly calculating. “Each of you, think about it. Think about those two figures. And then think about someone other than a Forge holding your paper. You think anyone else is going to roll over your paper when you’re growing wheat?”
“Your Daddy wouldn’t have done that.”
“Pop, why don’t you sit down. I sell that paper, and you can either make a pauper out of yourself hanging onto that piece of dirt, or else lose it and keep your clutches on that money you’re so keen to hold.”
Pop opened his mouth, but closed it without speaking. He put his pipe back in his pocket and sat down, and Richard began to pace again.
“Pop is right. My Daddy wouldn’t have done that. And that’s why he didn’t have any answers when the bank began to fail. And everyone here – except Skipper – helped that failure along. And failure led to that.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the wall, to the bullet hole in the cracked plaster.
“We all thought the world of your father,” a grower named Wilhelm Pruger said. “None of us thought it would end up like this.”
“That so?” Richard said. “So none of you feel like you had a finger on the trigger?”
“We all thought your father was a great man,” another grower said, and everyone mumbled agreement.
Richard shook his head. “Once upon a time, he was. But not when he died in that chair. He was a man who couldn’t look ahead. Just like none of you looked ahead when you pulled out your money.”
He leaned forward, palms on the desk, and looked at Wilhelm Pruger. “You, Wilhelm, what are you growing on your land?”
“Henry Goodling?” Richard looked at his father-in-law. “You growing wheat too?”
“Yes,” Henry admitted. “Wheat.”
“So it’s wheat all around?” When everyone nodded, Richard smiled. “You all have God damned wheat on the brain. Dry land farming, when there are artesian wells not fifty miles from here and a gorge for a dam site up the river. Skipper, what’s the coming thing in railroads?”
Skipper, the railroad boss, had been leaning half-seated against the broad bookshelf near the globe. He was an outsider, not from one of the old Forge families, a salaried employee of Southern Pacific sent out to manage the railyard and coaling station, and he was not part of the past history that joined everyone else in the room. But he had a hundred men under him, and he spoke for the railroad, and his words carried weight, and now he pushed himself upright and faced the circle of men.
“The coming thing? Cooling cars. Shipping fresh back east.”
“Right. And wheat shipments from our silos?”
“Level, or falling.”
“So if we’re looking ahead, what should we be producing?”
“Row crops,” Skipper said. “Beans, sugar beets asparagus. Maybe some tree and vine crops too. Walnuts, wine grapes, raisin grapes.”
“Thanks, Skipper.” Richard turned back to the growers. “I can’t bring back my father, but I can try to save his bank. Right now, I can get Wells Fargo to recapitalize this bank if we invest in an irrigation district. We’ve got water right below our feet, and the new centrifugal pumps can get it out. Some of you have senior rights on that river water, and we’ve got a dam to build. You’ll all sign contracts to buy the water, and you’ll plant what Southern Pacific can ship.”
“Wells Fargo won’t do that for nothing,” Pop said.
“That’s right. Afterwards, they’ll own half the bank. But I figure half of something is better than all of nothing. Don’t you, Pop?”
“I guess it doesn’t matter what all I think.”
“It matters. I’ve got to have all of you thinking that this is the time to grow, to invest. Or else the bank will go down and this town will dry up and blow away. And I’ll sell the paper on your lands, all of your lands, for what I can get for them.”
Richard was sweating in the hot and gloomy room, and the overhead fan spun slowly and moved around the heated air. He took the kerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his brow.
“Why don’t you all go home to think about it,” he said. “We’re going to throw a black ribbon across the door tomorrow, and put out a sign saying we’re opening at three. If you’re in, I’ll expect to see you there.”
The men stood up slowly, stiffly. They were older, in their fifties and sixties, and knew only one kind of farming. But they all had sons and daughters, Richard’s age or younger, and their children were in their mind as they slowly walked to the desk, shook Richard’s hand, and walked out.
Henry Goodling was the last to leave. “Sorry again about your father. None of us expected this.”
“No. Of course not.”
“I only wanted to protect myself. And my land.”
Alone in the office, Richard glanced down at the list of names, thought about how well he’d done in scaring men who were already scared. And though he hadn’t shown it, he was scared himself. He still had to go to the Western Union office. He’d asked for an operator to work Sunday.
The light coming in through the curtains seemed dense and weighted, tinged with red. He felt the presence of his father’s ghost in the office, and he wished he could talk with him. He was going to try to make the deal his father hadn’t thought possible. He needed to talk about it with someone, share it, he needed someone to tell him he was doing well, and he couldn’t think of anyone else whose word would matter except his father’s.
On that Monday, two tellers draped black velvet crape across the tall bronze doors of the Bank of Forge, a black velvet bow poised above the long door handles. The town sign painter had hand lettered a sign informing all that, out of respect for the passing of the bank’s founder, Richard Forge, the bank would remain closed until three p.m. The sign was placed on an easel and displayed between the columns at the bank’s entrance. A crowd of people had gathered by nine when the sign was posted, those who had been turned away on Friday, and they muttered in small groups. Everyone knew that Richard Senior had shot himself in the head. It was impossible to keep such a thing secret, and it convinced everyone that the bank was indeed going under and could take their money with it. They looked at the sign mistrustfully, wondered if it was just a way to put them off awhile longer in hopes they would go away. Those who had come first remained in the doorway, determined to be first in line when the bank opened – if it opened. Some others wandered down the street and looked through the black wrought iron palings and across the neat and green yard to Casselman’s Funeral Parlor, where the visitation was already taking place.
Inside the funeral parlor, Richard sat in the front row of the visitation room, beside his mother and two sisters. Before them, on a bier draped with black velvet, the dark walnut casket was displayed. A cross hung behind the casket, a silver cross suspended before black drapes, and candles and flowers were spread on the steps leading up to the bier. They had brought over and displayed the painting of Richard Senior that had hung in the bank lobby, a painting that showed him proud and prosperous, dressed in his best three piece suit, standing before the bookshelves and the county map in the office where he had shot himself. The painting was how Richard’s mother wanted to remember her husband.
The casket was closed. Harold Casselman had shown Richard the restored face of his father, the best his art could do with the violence of his death, and Richard made the decision without consulting with his mother. He hadn’t wanted her to see the face. When he’d arrived on the late train, he found his mother frightened and confused, and he promised her he would set things aright, and she clung to him and clung to him.
Now he sat, stiff and upright, keeping vigil, and women came and went about him, dressed in black, walking with a quiet swish of their stiff black skirts. They entered from the back, but neither Richard nor his mother nor his sisters ever turned to see who it was had come. They took up a gold pen to sign the visitation book, came forward to lay flowers by the portrait and casket, turned and whispered condolences to Richard’s mother. They took his sisters’ hands in theirs for a moment, gloved hand pressing gloved hand, nodded at Richard, then took a seat in the row of chairs behind them. Once seated, there was stillness until the next arrival. They did not talk, all concentrating on the task of seeing a soul out of the world and, they hoped, redeemed.
When Richard heard the clock tower above the courthouse ring noon, he stood up, squeezed his mother’s hand, bowed his head toward the casket, and walked out into the thick and heated air of the valley. His cabriolet was brought around to the porte cochere with his horse already in harness, and he shook the reins and started down the curving way, through the wrought iron gates. The small crowd at the fence recognized him, pointed at him, and their voices grew loud, but he ignored them as he turned left onto Central Street. When he passed the bank, he saw the line formed outside, the knot at the top of the stairs within the shade of the columns and pediment, and men and women extending down the sidewalk, pressed against storefronts to shelter under the shade of awnings. These recognized him too, and he waved at them. They watched, gaped, as he passed the bank and continued to the railyard.
Skipper was waiting for him under the metal canopy on the freight dock, and he pulled out his pocket watch when Richard walked up to him. “The 1:20 is on time.”
“I hope this works.”
Richard looked back down Central Street. A few of the curious who had been outside the funeral home, or who had been at the tail end of the line outside the bank, were wandering north toward the railroad tracks.
“I’m sure it will work,” he said, though he wasn’t sure at all. Some depended on those gawkers, and how they acted. Some depended on the landowners, those old men afraid of change.
While they waited, an open haywagon rounded alongside the loading dock, drawn by a matched pair of Percherons. The driver, a man who had been grown when there were only horses and mules and oxen to work the valley, was dressed in clean overalls, and he saluted Richard with his coiled bullwhip. Richard nodded at him, then turned. A train whistle sounded across the hot and rainless plain from the direction of the Diablo Range. A black speck grew above the vanishing point of the railroad tracks. Then the plume of steam grew visible, and then the round blunt face of the engine above the cowcatcher. The whistle blew again, and the bell above the engine clanged, and the engine grew enormous as it slowed into the station, huge and black and dwarfing the men on the dock. It passed them, slower still, the brakes smelling hot, steam vapor enveloping the engine as it continued through its own self-created cloud, until it expelled a great hiss and sigh and came to a halt.
Richard and Skipper walked toward the caboose, and then Richard saw William Tower, a banker he had worked with in San Francisco, step from one of the railcars onto the dock. William shook hands with them both, then drew the back of his hand across his forehead and looked around. “So this is Forge,” he said. “Christ, is it hot enough?”
“Never been here before?” Skipper asked.
“I don’t go past the Embarcadero if I can help it.”
A Pinkerton Detective stepped out of the car behind William, a beefy man in a blue serge uniform and bowler hat, carrying a shotgun. He inspected Richard and Skipper with hard little eyes.
William ignored the Pinkerton and let Skipper and Richard into the car. Two other Pinkertons stood at one end, each cradling an identical shotgun. Behind them was a pile of white canvas bags, stacked nearly to the ceiling of the car, with the name Wells Fargo stenciled on each one.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” William said.
There were contracts and receipts to sign, formalizing in principle the agreement that Wells Fargo would take an ownership stake in the Bank of Forge, and would finance the creation of an irrigation district contingent upon contracts being signed with local landowners and the Southern Pacific, in exchange for a certain sum with which to recapitalize the bank. And there would be more documents to sign in the future, studied by lawyers on both sides before signatures were affixed. When sufficient guarantees had been exchanged, William and Richard shook hands.
“Hard to believe you pulled this off,” William said. “But when I first met you on the adjustments floor, I knew you were a comer.”
“It was this or nothing,” Richard said.
“It’s too bad your father couldn’t see this deal.”
“Yes. It’s too bad.”
“I was sorry to hear about your father. We all were, at the office.”
“Thank you.” Richard took his watch out and snapped open the cover. “Let’s go. The bank opens in an hour, and the people outside are waiting for a show.”
Outside the car, six yardworkers stood in a knot, keeping at a ten-yard distance as instructed by the Pinkerton. William gave the word, and the Pinkerton gestured with his shotgun, and the yardworkers filed into the railcar. One of them whistled in admiration. “Oh Lord,” another said, “I will never see that much money in my lifetime.”
“Stow the gab,” Skipper said, “and get it loaded.”
The yardworkers spread out and formed a human chain, passing bags of bound cash out of the car, across the loading dock, and into the open bed of the haywagon stationed opposite the railcar. The Pinkertons spread themselves out along the line, all large men in blue with stiff bowler hats, shotguns looming over the lanky workers in coveralls.
A ring of townspeople had gathered near the loading dock, waiting in the sun as Richard had disappeared into the railcar. Now, as the first bag of money thudded into the haywagon, they moaned slightly, a soft exhalation of breath as they witnessed something miraculous, something they had hoped for, and yet something they could never actually touch. The bags of money became a river, a waterfall, as William stepped down into the wagon to count them off, and the crowd watched the bags mound up higher than the wagon sides, visible through the shafts of the hay rack around the wagon bed. How high would it go, they wondered, though it already rose high enough in their minds that it would purchase each of them a life free from want and worry.
Richard stood on the dock and watched the sacks of money, and he knew he was being scrutinized by those wasters on the ground below him, and he kept his face stolid and impassive, a banker’s face. But inside, he felt an unaccountable glee. It was working, and he felt like tickling himself and laughing out loud, and he wished his father were here to admire the triumph that mounted with every sack in the wagon bed.
The yardworkers passed the last sack across the loading dock and into the wagon bed, and the Wells Fargo man gave a thumbs up, ignoring a call or two from the crowd to throw one bag a little further, nobody would miss it. The Pinkertons took up positions in the corners of the wagon, standing with their shotguns in the crook of their arms, and then Richard descended from the loading dock with Skipper at his side, and the crowd parted for them as they made their way to Richard’s cabriolet. He had his horse pull in front of the draft horses, and then the wagon driver uncoiled his whip and cracked it in the air above the ears of the right hand horse, and the horses started forward into their leathern collars and rattled the trace chains and drew the wagon piled high with money behind them.
Richard shook his reins smartly, and they formed a small parade the six blocks from the railroad station to the bank. Down Central Street, Richard in the cabriolet with the Southern Pacific represented in the seat beside him, followed by the horse-drawn wagon with the wealth of the world on display. The crowd of onlookers who had been at the station followed along on foot, drawn by the magical attraction of money, and they were joined by others along the way, the numbers of folk swelling, an impromptu triumphal procession in celebration of wealth and the town’s future. A festival mood grew as the money proceeded down the street, a sense that the ruin of the bank that had seemed inevitable that morning would not occur. Rather, the opposite was happening, evidenced by those sacks stamped with the magnificent name of Wells Fargo. The bank would survive and prosper, the town would thrive, they all would live.
As the cabriolet and the wagon passed in front of the bank and turned into the alley beside it to offload, those who had been in line before the crape-bedecked door stared and wondered, and soon heard the story of the 1:20 train, the special railcar, the Pinkertons, the sacks of cash. They had been in line for hours in the blanketing heat, and most of them stayed in line, unwilling to leave before they were certain of their money, disbelieving the spectacle that had passed them by, mistrustful of the joyful mood of the parade that had turned into a moil of people below the bank’s granite steps. The clock on the courthouse had rung 2:30, and the sign on the easel still said the bank would open at 3:00, and most of those in line chose to remain. If Richard Forge Sr. had been telling the truth, and the reserves really had come from San Francisco, why had he taken his own life? They would wait, and would see their money in their hands.
Richard walked into the center of the bank’s marble floored lobby. All about him, his employees worked with a quiet intensity. Within their brass teller cages, the tellers were making ready their cash drawers, while beyond the gate at the rear of the lobby, loan officers stood inside the open vault, pressed into service sorting stacks of banded cash. Richard had spoken to every employee, especially the tellers, informed them of the attitude they were to have: Be cheerful, pleased to be of service, don’t show any hesitation in giving someone every last dollar they have in their passbook. It’s only when they see and know they can have their money on demand that they’ll trust us to hold it for them.
He looked at the grandfather clock, looked above it where his father’s portrait had hung, a large rectangle with the paint slightly less faded. He knew that even now, the bank didn’t have enough cash for every depositor. The bank usually kept three percent of its deposits on hand, and today it might have ten percent. He thought it would be enough, though he still wasn’t sure. He needed the landowners.
The bank detective stood near the bronze double doors with a ring of keys in his hands, ready to unlock it from the inside. The Pinkertons were also ranged about the lobby, silent and watchful. Richard looked through the plate glass and cross hatch of bronze, saw the strained faces of people peering in. The grandfather clock began to toll three, and the bank detective turned the key and drew the doors open and collected the black ribbon, and Richard stepped forward.
He put his hands up to the press of people, and the Pinkertons and the bank detective closed ranks behind him to keep them from rushing forward. There was a brief surge of bodies that then fell back as Richard called for quiet, quiet please, he had an announcement.
“I appreciate you, all of you, waiting while we paid our respects to my father, who gave so much to our city.” He spoke with a clear and articulate voice, and his voice carried. At the mention of Richard Forge Sr., some in line clutching a passbook looked down, a little ashamed. “Now. We’re going to serve everyone. But we’re going to have two lines. One for those of you making withdrawals. And one for you making deposits. So if you’re making withdrawals, stay in the line you’re in. If you’re making deposits, line up here to the left.
The Pinkertons stepped aside, and the first in line, the wife of a mechanic and mother of six named Mrs. Hanson, came in, a little cowed by having to pass through that gauntlet of large men dressed in blue. She kept her black beaded snap purse tight between her two white gloved hands and went to a teller cage. Others followed, quiet and well-behaved, walking between the files of armed men.
Meanwhile, word passed down the line of what Richard had said, and some took it as a joke. Was anyone there to make a deposit? No. They were all there to get their money. And they wondered if his short speech was just another ruse.
Inside the bank, orderly lines formed at each teller cage. The loan officers had cash drawers full and ready to exchange with the tellers when their funds ran low, and the tellers were working slowly and methodically, giving each patron exactly as much as requested. Many left one dollar in their account – just in case – and left with a hundred or a hundred and fifty stuffed in their pocket or purse.
Outside, Richard stood at the top of the steps, and greeted by name many of those who entered the bank. And then he saw the first of them, and he smiled because it was Pop Simmons, and he was carrying a pillowcase. Pop marched awkwardly alongside the line of those waiting to withdraw money, awkward in a suit and vest and tie, and he barely grunted in response to those who greeted him. He walked up the steps of the bank to where Richard waited in the shade of the columns, the pillow case weighted and incongruous, bouncing against his shin. They shook hands, went inside the cool and shaded interior of the bank, and Richard rapped on the one teller cage that had remained locked. As the people in line to withdraw their funds turned to watch, a teller opened the cage and Pop swung his pillowcase onto the marble counter and spilled out a heap of filthy banknotes.
The teller took some time to separate the bills into stacks of common denomination, and the stacks were high and visible to all, and then each stack was counted twice before the teller summed it up and wrote the new sum on the bank’s paper and in Pop’s passbook. The line to withdraw advanced, and those in line at that time watched the teller pick up each stack of bills, and riffle it, and place it into his cash drawer. Pop shook hands again with Richard and walked out of the bank and down the line, fisting his now empty pillowcase.
Wilhelm Pruger followed, and Howard Mackey, and Gad Watkins. One by one, the growers and landowners and businessmen of Forge, the men known to all, walked down the line carrying cash in satchels and boodle bags and feedsacks, and they deposited their money in public fashion. Gad Watkins came in with his son Josh, a man Richard’s age, and the two of them talked while Gad watched his deposit counted. “I convinced him,” Josh said. “It’s progress, isn’t it?” And Henry Goodling came in with his son as well, Richard’s brother-in-law, Todd, who smiled and punched Richard lightly on the shoulder as though they were still in school together.
After making their deposits, they walked out with the light and empty bags as proof. And as they walked back down the line, they told anyone who asked that the bank was recapitalized, the bank was sound. Hadn’t they just seen that wagon full of money? They might have been worried a little, but no more. Richard Junior had taken over, a good businessman, a man you could trust, and everything was back on an even keel.
The line on the street began to break apart, as those toward the rear, who had heard four o’clock ring on the courthouse bell and judged themselves unlikely to get in that day in any event, found reason to take the good men at their word and consider their money in the bank safe. Then others, tired of standing in the heat of August, and thinking of the job they had left for the day, or the children left in care of an aunt, decided it was fine to trust the bank again. Now those who were near the foot of the steps, who had been waiting longest and feeling smug in thinking that they would get their money while those behind would not, found themselves at the end of the line, with no one behind them. Those with a foot on the steps remained, but the line would soon be entirely within the lobby.
Then, as Richard stood at the top of the stairs, smiling and pleased, Mrs. Hanson walked up to him, clutching her black-beaded purse, and asked if she could re-deposit the money she had taken out earlier. He said of course, and led her in to the same teller cage where men had emptied out thousands of dollars from sacks and pillowcases, and watched over her benevolently as the teller took her ninety-six dollars and wrote in her passbook. Another man, who had just taken out his money, looked stupidly at the stack of cash in his hand, then walked across the lobby and stood behind Mrs. Hanson to re-deposit it as well.
By the time the courthouse bell rang five o’clock, there was no line down the steps, and the lobby was empty. The exhausted tellers and all the bank’s employees were still filling out paperwork, and Richard thanked them all and wished them all a good evening.
He went back to the president’s office, his office now. And the ghost was waiting for him in the office, sitting in the chair beneath the bullet hole, wearing the three piece suit, the diamond stickpin, the gold cufflinks.
The chair creaked. The ghost seemed to be looking at him, though its eyes were shadows and it was impossible to be sure.
Richard hesitated. Then he stepped around the desk and took the chair, the president’s chair, the death chair, and he sat right where the ghost was sitting.
Later that evening, Richard would have dinner at the Bohemian Hotel with Skipper and William Tower, and Fritz would bring out bottles of Eclipse Champagne, and they would toast beating the bank run, toast the future dam and irrigation, toast the coming boom. Later that evening, he’d send a telegram to Joan and tell her to call workmen, that they would have to move back to Forge.
But just then, he spun the chair around and looked at the cracks spreading out from the bullet hole.