A blaze like a tidal wave tore across the foothills consuming thin, dry pine trees. Clouds of grey ashy smoke carried by the wind settled on the fledgling city of Denver. The spring of 1863 was a dry one. Young Denver City was blanketed by dust, stink and smoke; the inhabitants swam in a vapor of agitation. Everyone Lamar passed on main street was red eyed, coughing and angry.
Five ponies, tied up outside the saloon, pulled against their restraints desperate to escape the oppressive air of the river basin and seek higher ground above the lid of pollution. A small paint, not more than 12 hands, thrashed and reared nearly snapping the post to which she was tied. The lead rope wrapped around her neck choking her. Her bulging eyes threatened to pop from the pressure.
Finally a short brown skinned man burst from the saloon and flew at the distressed mare slamming into her chest as she reared back. Lamar heard the snap of her neck as the pony crumpled onto the piss and shit below.
"This is how you break a pinche caballo cabron." He said in a stew of accents; french, spanish, english and native. All full of lust and fury he pushed his way back into the saloon.
Lamar followed closely. The wind slammed the saloon door shut behind him.
As Lamar crossed the sunken floor to the bar he was scanned by broken fragments of sunlight that shone through the crumbling chinking of the dimly lit saloon. The inescapable smog and agitation permeated the log building.
The men in the bar, gold miners, trappers and traders squinted in the dim light, their eyes watered, many wrapped handkerchiefs around their mouths to filter the brackish air. Lamar, like the rest of the men, drank whiskey to kill the pain.
As the sun began to set behind the Rockies Denver City was bathed in an eerie orange light that only added to the hellish environment of the town. As dusk arrived the winds died down . The dust and soot began to settle. The men’s lust, fury and agitation, now fueled with whiskey, intensified.
Lamar’s hardworking back, sore from weeks of scooping and sifting sand and silt from the Platte River in hopes of finding gold began to unclench as the barkeep lit oil lamps.
"What's the day?" asked Lamar.
" April 19th" replied the barkeep.
"Sunday?" asked Lamar.
"I have no idea?" replied the barkeep.
The horse killer, a Comanche, was a good foot shorter than any of the other patrons and the only Indian in the bar. The whiskey did not kill his pain; it only served to remind him of it and exacerbated it. He waved his arms wildly above his head. No one took their eyes off of him. Those nearest backed away slowly giving him space. His eyes, all pupils, black as night, took everyone in. All felt endangered. The barkeep was nowhere to be seen.
The Comanche cocked his head forming his lips around his worn teeth; beginning a war whoop. Miners placed their hands on their pistols. The Comanche placed his hand on his ax. There was still a bounty on Indian scalps but up until now this one's value as a horse trader outweighed the value of his hair.
His war whoop generated intensity. The air in the bar was murderous. His knuckles whitened on the ax handle. Goldminers fingered their triggers. As the ax slipped from his belt and pistols were freed from their holsters the barkeep, all 260 pounds of him, flew from the bar top slamming the Comanche into the dirt floor. With his wind taken the Comanche was carried outside and deposited next to the stiffening pony.
“Sleep it off,” said the barkeep.
Inside, the bar settled back into the normal tension of drinking and lying.
Lamar, drunk and alone, drifted outside to scalp that Indian before someone else did.
His approach was heavy with whiskey and fatigue. His hands grasped both ends of his knife. He knew from experience the best way to scalp an Indian is with a pull knife action. Lamar knelt over the blacked out Comanche. Scalping the living was the highest form of scalping; recognized and practiced by both sides of the frontier wars.
Lamar raised his arms over the Comanche’s head. His plan was to quickly cut and pull. He would deal with whatever came after that.
The Comanche’s eyes shot open, his hands grabbed Lamar by his throat crushing his windpipe. Lamar fell back over the dead pony, the Comanche’s hand locked onto his neck. Lamar slashed with his knife cutting Comanche, cutting pony, cutting himself. Slashing into the Comanche’s bicep Lamar was finally freed from his death grip. Lamar retreated backward toward the saloon door. The Comanche was on his feet running; crashing into him sending Lamar flying back into the saloon.
The pressure that had been building in Denver since the forest fires began a week ago, exploded. In the melee an oil lamp was knocked over. The saloon, made of dry pine wood, erupted in flame. That fire set off a chain reaction as the flames passed from log structure to log structure until the whole city was ablaze. In moments from what is now 16th street to the Cherry Creek and from Market to Wazee was destroyed.
The front range was never meant to be permanently inhabited; only migrated through. For thousands of years the confluence of the Cherry Creek and the Platte River was home to temporary encampments of hunters and gathers following seasons and animals. The front range has always been and remains a place to pass through.
The aftermath of the fire on April 19th, 1863 attempted to change all of that. The industrious inhabitants of Denver, unwilling to leave the potential fortune of gold, began rebuilding in the flood zone of the confluence while the embers of the old city still glowed. This time they built under the confines of a new a law. A law that tried to create permanence on an ever changing landscape. The law that was passed immediately following the fire of 1863 stated that “no structures shall be built of flammable materials”, which was a boon to the brick manufacturers in the area.
Denver was born and burned on the same day, April 19th 1863.
If you close your eyes and shut your mouth you can still feel the instinct to leave this place. We all feel it, everyone of us. This feeling comes up from the ground itself. It’s inescapable.
But I also feel the desire to stay. Maybe all the cement and asphalt mute the voice of the land.
Maybe I stay to see the forests burn, the rivers flood and bison stampede again.
Maybe I stay because I’ve found you all.
I stay even when the land itself tells me to go. And I wonder why?
Maybe because when I close my eyes and shut my mouth I am comfortable with this feeling of not belonging. There is nothing on this planet that belongs to me.
Or maybe it’s just I can get behind a city that was born of whiskey and fire. At least it’s honest for a white man.