The placer at Alder Gulch was so extensive, so easy of development and so prolific, that many of the miners who commenced work upon it in the early days of its discovery, fortunate in their acquisitions, and disgusted with their associations, were ready to return to the States in the fall. Failing in this, they knew that they would be doomed to a long winter of idleness, exposed to the privations incident to a new and isolated region, and to the depredations of a large and increasing criminal population. The hegira, at first small, increased in numbers, so that by the first of November it could be numbered by hundreds, who were on their return to their old homes. Many -perhaps the greater portion -of those wayfarers travelled in the conveyances which brought them to the country; others on horseback; and a large number leaving Virginia City on one of the two lines of coaches for Bannack, trusted to chance for an opportunity to continue the journey beyond that place. How many of these persons fell victims to the road agents, on their long and perilous journey, it is impossible to tell; but the inquiries of relatives and friends for hundreds of them for months and even years after their departure, leave no chance for doubt that the villains drove a bloody and prosperous business.
Several of their most daring exploits occurred on the route between Virginia City and Bannack, a region admirably adapted to their purposes. Its frequent streams, canyons, mountain passes, rocky ledges, willow thickets, and deep embosomed valleys, afforded ample means of concealment, and advantages for attack upon passing trains, with very few chances for defense or escape. The robbers had their established points of rendezvous on the road, and worked in concert by a system of horseback telegraphy, as unfailing as electricity. Whenever it was known that a person with money was about to leave, by coach, a private mark was made upon the vehicle, which would be recognized wherever seen, at Daly's, Baker's, Dempsey's, or Bunton's, the several ranches where the coach horses were changed. Bunton, who kept the Rattlesnake ranche, was the same villain who was associated with Plummer in the shebangs near Walla Walla, of which an account has already been given.
When the approach of a coach was perceived at either of these changing stations, the herder in charge mounted his horse, and rode hurriedly off to drive up the horses for the next route, which were generally feeding in sight of the station. Sometimes they strayed off, and the coach would be delayed until they were found, but this was of infrequent occurrence. Pre cisely the same system was followed here as upon the plains in the days of the overland mail stages.
The horses in use when not of the cayuse breed, were bronchos, or wild horses from California, neither in quality nor breed suited for the service, unreliable, and easily broken down. They were driven very rapidly, and when their speed gave out were turned out as no longer fit for use. As a consequence it was one of the chief difficulties of a stage proprietor to secure horses which would insure the punctuality of his trips. The trip between Virginia City and Bannack was ordinarily completed between the rising and setting of the sun.
Among the miners earliest to arrive and stake a claim in Alder Gulch was an Irishman by the name of Daniel McFadden, who soon became familiarized to the sobriquet of "Bummer Dan." Why he was thus designated was never known, but it may be presumed that he early developed some of the peculiarities, which, in the opinion of the people, justified it. He was fortunate in securing one of the richest claims in the gulch, and, making good use of his time, had saved two thousand dollars or more dust by the middle of October. Having sold his claim, with this gold in his possession, he made preparations for a journey to Bannack. Securing it in buckskin purses, he put them in a larger bag, and by means of a strap across his shoulder, and a belt, contrived to conceal the treasure under his clothing, and carry it very conveniently. One raw, gusty day, toward the close of the month, he left Virginia City on foot, and walked down the valley to Dempsey's ranche, on the Stinkingwater, where he awaited the arrival of Peabody & Caldwell's coach on its way to Bannack. Owing to the sickness of the driver, William Rumsey was pressed into service for the trip, and the coach left Virginia City at the usual hour in the morning, with Messrs. Madison, Percy, and Wilkinson, as passengers. One of the heavy snowstorms peculiar to this season and latitude set in soon after the coach was under way, and continued during the drive of the first ten miles, rendering their progress slow and cumbersome. At Baker's ranche the passengers were obliged to wait until the herder, who had been housed during the storm, could drive up the horses. He returned after an hour's search with an indifferent team, which was driven on the run to Dempsey's ranche, to recover the time lost by the delay. Here "Bummer Dan" took passage, and the same speed was maintained to "Point of Rocks," the locality known in Lewis and Clark's travels as Beaver Head Rock. The wearied horses gave place here to a fresher team, which continued on a keen run to Bunton's ranche on the Rattlesnake. It was now sunset, and yet twelve miles to Bannack. The herder who had brought up the horses for the change at the usual hour, finding that the coach did not arrive on time, had, under Bunton's orders, turned them out again, an hour before. Bunton pretended that he did not expect the coach. The herder was sent out immediately after the horses, and returned at dark with the report that he could not find them. Rumsey then requested "Little Frank," a Mexican boy in whom he had confidence, to go in search of the horses. He too soon returned with the report that they could not be found.
This "Little Frank," a few weeks afterwards, told Rumsey that the horses were near at the time, but that before he started to look for them, Bunton told him that if he did not report them to be missing he would kill him.
A night with Bill Bunton was unavoidable, and the passengers at once determined to "make a night of it." Bunton entered into the spirit of the occasion with them. Whiskey was provided. They drank themselves hilarious, sang, related adventures, and caroused until daylight; but, to Bunton's disappointment, without becoming intoxicated, and never forgetting, meantime, their exposure to robbery, or the convenience of a revolver in the belt.
At daylight two herders were sent for the horses. One returned at eight o'clock, with the report that they could not be found. An hour afterwards the other brought in the same horses that came with the coach the previous evening. "Necessity knows no law," and so with a pair of these for leaders, and two worn-out wheelers, the coach was soon declared ready for a start. Just at this time, Oliver's coach from Bannack drove up, enroute to Virginia City, and fresh drinks were called for. In the mean time a rough by the name of Bob Zachary, who was going to Bannack with a couple of horses, insisted that Wilkinson should bear him company and ride one of them. They departed on a canter in advance of the coach, and were soon out of sight. Bunton, who had been distributing liquor among the passengers of the coaches, and trying to make himself generally agreeable, came out with the bottle and a tumbler to give Rumsey a drink.
"Wait a few minutes, Billy," said he, "and I will ride to Bannack with you. These passengers will be gone in a moment."
"Get up on the box with me," replied Rumsey. "These old 'plugs' at the wheel will need pretty constant whipping, and my exercise in that line yesterday has lamed my arm."
"I'm a pretty good whipper," Bunton responded, laughing, "and if there's any 'go' in them, I can bring it out. They're a pair of 'played out' wheelers that had been turned out to rest, and I think we'll fail to get them beyond a walk,-but we'll give them a try."
The weather was cold and blustering. The curtains of the coach were fastened down. Percy, Madison, and "Bummer Dan" got in, and Bunton mounted the box beside Rumsey. The horses began to weaken before they reached the crossing of the creek, less than a mile away. There the road entered the gulch. Bunton, who had succeeded, as he intended, in tiring the horses, surrendered the whip to Rumsey and got inside the coach. He knew what was coming. Rumsey whipped up the wheelers, but could not urge them into any faster gait. Cursing his "slow poke of a team," his eye caught the figures of two horsemen entering the gulch from a dry ravine a few rods in front of the coach. They were wrapped in blankets, with hoods over their heads, and armed with shotguns. Instantly the thought flashed through his mind that they were robbers.
"Look! boys, look!" he shouted. "See what's coming. Get out your arms. The road agents are upon us."
The eyes of every man in the coach were peering through the loopholes at the approaching bandits. Madison, the first to discover them, was searching for his pistol, when the robbers rode up, and in broken Irish, and assumed tones, with their guns aimed at the coach, yelled,-
"Up with your hands every one of you."
This formula, always used, was generally concluded with an abusive epithet. Bill Bunton, who had a part to enact, threw up his hands and in an imploring voice, exclaimed,-
"For God's sake don't kill me. You are welcome to all my money,-only spare my life."
The other inmates raised their arms as commanded.
"Get out," shouted the robbers, "and hold up your hands. We'll shoot every man who puts his down."
The passengers descended hurriedly to the ground and stood with their arms upraised, awaiting further orders. Turning to Rumsey, who remained on the box holding the reins, the robbers ordered him to get down, and remove the arms from the passengers.
Not easily frightened, and anxious to escape a service so distasteful, Rumsey replied,-
"You must be fools to think I'm going to get down and let this team run away. You don't want the team. It can do you no good."
"Get down," said the robber spokesman with an oath as he levelled his gun at Rumsey, "or I'll shoot the top of your head off."
"There's a man," said Rumsey, pointing to Bunton, "who is unarmed. Let him disarm the others."
"Oh!" replied Bunton in a lachrymose tone, "I'll hold the horses -I'll hold the horses while you take off the pistols. Anything -anything, only don't shoot me."
"Go then, and hold the horses, you long-legged coward," said the robber; "and now," he continued, levelling his gun at and addressing Rumsey, "get down at once, and do as you've been ordered, or you'll be a dead man in half a minute."
The order was too peremptory to be disobeyed. Rumsey tied the reins to the brake-handle, and jumped to the ground.
"Now take them arms off," said the robber, "and be quick about it too."
Removing the two navy revolvers from "Bummer Dan," Rumsey sidled off slowly, with the hope of getting a shot at the ruffians; but they, comprehending his design, ordered him to throw them on the ground. As the choice lay between obedience or death, he laid them down, and was proceeding very slowly to remove the pistols from the other passengers, with the hope that by some fortunate chance a company of horsemen or some friendly train would come to the rescue before the villains could complete their work.
"Hurry up there," shouted the robber. "Don't keep us waiting all day."
After the passengers were freed of their arms, and the arms piled up near the road agents, the speaker of the two ordered Rumsey to relieve them of their purses. Bunton, who had all the time been petitioning for his life, took out his purse, and throwing it towards Rumsey, exclaimed,-
"There's a hundred and twenty dollars,-all I have in the world. You're welcome to it, only don't kill me." All this while, the men, not daring to drop their hands, directed Rumsey in his search for their purses. He had taken a sack gold dust from Percy, one from Madison, and two from "Bummer Dan," and supposed his work to he completed.
"Have you got it all?" inquired the robber.
"All I could find," replied Rumsey. Turning to Madison, the robber asked, pointing to the sacks,-"Is that all you've got?"
"No," said Madison, nudging his pocket with his elbow, "there's another in this pocket."
The road agent, in an angry manner, cursing Rumsey for trying to deceive him, ordered him to take it out: -
"Don't you leave nothing," was the stern, ungrammatical command.
Rumsey took the purse, and having added it to the pile, was about to resume his seat on the box.
"Where are you going?" shouted both the robbers.
"To get on the coach, you fools," retorted Rumsey, "You've got all there is, and we want to go on now."
"Go back there, and get the big sack from that Irish bummer," said one of the robbers; and pointing his pistol at Dan, he added, "You're the man we're after. Get that strap off your shoulder."
Poor Dan! His money was very dear to him, but his life was dearer. As he could not save both, he commenced at once to remove the strap. Rumsey came up, and tried to pull it out, but finding it would not come, stepped back, while Dan was engaged in unbuckling the belt.
"Jerk it off," shouted the robber, "or I'll shoot you in a minute."
"Give him time," interposed Rumsey: "you'll not kill a man when he's doing all he can do for you."
"Well, hurry up, then, you awkward blackguard. We have no time to lose."
As soon as the belt was loosed, Dan drew forth a large, fringed, buckskin bag containing two sacks, which he handed to Rumsey, who tossed it on the heap.
"That's what we wanted," said the robber. "Now get aboard all of you, and get out of this as fast as you can; and if we ever hear a word from one of you, we'll shoot you on sight."
They obeyed with alacrity. Bunton resumed his seat beside the driver, and commenced whipping the horses, observing, as they rode off, that it was the hottest place he was ever in. At a turn in the road, Bunton looked back. The bandits had dismounted. One held the horses; the other was picking up the plunder, which, in all, amounted to twenty-eight hundred dollars. After gathering up their booty, the robbers galloped rapidly over the Indian trail leading to Bannack, arriving there in advance of the coach.
When intelligence of the robbery reached Bannack, public indignation was aroused, but the time had not yet arrived for action. Had the robbers been recognized, they would have fared hard on their return to Bannack, but the people felt that it was better not to strike, than strike at random.
George Hilderman, one of the robber gang, was present at the expressoffice on the arrival of the coach, seemingly as much surprised as any one at the intelligence of the robbery. His real object, however, was to observe whether the passengers had recognized the ruffians. If so, he was to report it to them, that they might keep out of the way. "Bummer Dan," doubtless, had in his employ some person in the confidence of the robbers; otherwise, his efforts to avoid them might have been successful.
It was afterwards ascertained that Frank Parrish [Parish] and Bob Zachary were the men who committed the robbery. Bill Bunton, being in the secret, aided as much as possible in delaying the coach over-night at Rattlesnake, and supplying it with worn-out horses for the trip from his ranche to Bannack. "Bummer Dan" and Percy recognized the robbers, but were restrained by personal fear from exposing them.
No man in this company was more feared by the ruffians than Rumsey. They could not frighten him, and no warning of his friends prevented him from fully expressing and ventilating his opinions concerning them. Nothing would silence his denunciations, but his death: and this being resolved upon by the robbers, they prepared to improve the opportunity afforded by his return to Virginia City, and accomplish it. It was so late in the day when he arrived at Dempsey's, that he concluded to pass the night there. Boone Helm, who had been awaiting his appearance, met him in the bar-room soon after his arrival, and invited him and other persons present to drink with him. Rumsey drank with the company two or three times. Helm called for more drinks.
"I've had enough," said Rumsey, declining to drink more.
"Take another, take another," said Helm. "It's good to keep the cold out."
"Not another drop," replied Rumsey: "I know my gauge on the liquor question, and never go beyond it."
"You shall drink again," said Helm, with an oath, casting a malicious glance at Rumsey.
"I won't drink again," was the immediate reply, "and no man can make me."
"No man can refuse to drink with me and live," replied Helm, seizing his revolver as if to draw it.
Rumsey was too quick for him. Before the desperado could draw his pistol, Rumsey had his leveled at his head. Addressing him in a calm, steady tone, he said.-
"Don't draw your pistol, or I'll shoot you, sure."
The men gazed sternly upon each other for a minute or more, Helm finally loosing his grasp of his pistol, and saying,-
"Well, you're the first man that ever looked me down. Let's be friends."
The courage of Rumsey inspired the robber with a respect for him which probably saved his life, as no further molestation was offered him on his way to Virginia City.
Percy was the proprietor of a bowling alley in Bannack. The roughs, in frequenting his saloon, would leave their horses standing outside the door; and he had so often seen the animals and accoutrements of each, that he easily recognized the robbers by their horses and saddles. When the coach arrived, Percy saw Frank Parish take Henry Plummer to one side, and engage in conversation with him. In a few minutes, Plummer came to Percy, and asked him if he knew the robbers. Percy replied,-
"No; and if I did, I'd not be such a fool as to tell who they were." Plummer tapped him on the shoulder, and replied,-
"You stick to that, Percy, and you'll be all right. There are about seventy-five of the worst desperadoes ever known on the west side of the mountains, in the country, in a band, and I know who they are."
Bunton, after this robbery, used occasionally to accost Percy in a playful manner, with such language as, "Throw up your hands;" or, "We were fools to be robbed, weren't we?" Percy, knowing that Bunton was one of the gang, soon tired of this; and one day at a race-course, when thus saluted, remarked, with unmistakable displeasure,-
"That's played out."
The words were scarcely uttered, when Bunton raised his pistol and fired at him. The ball grazed Percy's ear. Jason Luce, a driver of Mr. Oliver's express, stepped up and said to Bunton,-
"If you want to fight, why don't you take on a man of your own size, instead of a smaller one?"
Later in the day, while intoxicated, Luce called Bunton a coward, in the presence of his brother, Sam Bunton. The latter whipped him severely on the spot. Three days later, Luce carried the express to Salt Lake, Sam Bunton following four or five days thereafter. Luce met him at the Salt Lake House.
"We had," said he, addressing him, "a little difficulty in Bannack, and now we'll settle it."
"It's already settled," said Bunton.
"You're a liar," replied Luce, and drawing his knife cut Bunton's throat, killing him on the spot. Luce was arrested, tried, and found guilty of murder. By the Territorial statute of Utah, he was authorized to choose the mode of his execution, from the three forms of hanging, shooting, or beheading. His choice was to be shot, and he was executed in that manner.
Bill Bunton and Sam Bunton were natives of Ohio. Their parents moved to Andrew County, Missouri, in 1839, and thence to Oregon in 1842, when they were respectively sixteen and fourteen years old. The father was a rough, drinking, quarrelsome man, clever, but uneducated.