People who were living in the West in 1856, well remember the terrible winter of that year, and the suffering it occasioned among the poorer classes. Severity of weather, scarcity of provisions, and the high price of fuel, following hard upon a season of uncommon distress and disaster in all kinds of business, necessarily brought starvation and suffering to a large floating population, which had gathered into the little towns and settlements along the Missouri border. This was especially the case in the settlements of Kansas, which, by their supposed opportunities for profitable investment and occupation, had attracted a large emigration from other parts of the Union. Langford Peel was at this time a prosperous citizen of Leavenworth. Moved to compassion by the sufferings of those around him, he contributed generously to their relief. Among others who shared liberally of his bounty were Messrs. Conley and Rucker, two men whom he found in a state of complete destitution, and invited to his house, where they were comfortably provided for until spring, and then aided with means to return to their friends.
Of Peel's antecedents, previous to this time, I know nothing. He was regarded as one of those strange compounds who unite in their character the extremes of recklessness and kindness. In his general conduct there was more to approve than condemn, though his fearless manner, his habits of life, and his occupation as a gambler, gave him a doubtful reputation. Among people of his own class he was specially attractive, because of his great physical strength, manly proportions, undoubted bravery, and overflowing kindness. To these qualities he added a repose of manner that gave him unbounded influence in his sphere. No man was more prompt to make the cause of a friend his own, to resent an injury, or punish an insult. His dexterity with the revolver was as marvelous as the ready use he made of it when provoked. His qualifications as a rough and ready borderer bespoke a foreground in his life, of much exposure and practice.
The year 1858 found him in Salt Lake City, in reduced circumstances. As if to mark this reverse with peculiar emphasis, Conley and Rucker, the sharers of his bounty two years before, were also there engaged in prosperous business. They had seemingly forgotten their old benefactor, and treat ed him with coldness and neglect. Peel was an entire stranger to all save them, and felt bitterly their ingratitude.
A citizen by the name of Robinson, who had been attracted by the manly figure of Peel, observed him, a few days after his arrival, seated upon a log in the rear of the Salt Lake House, apparently in deep study. Calling his partner to the door, he inquired if he knew him.
"His name is Peel, I have been told," was the reply, "He is in trouble."
"Yes, he's got no money, and is a stranger."
"Do you know him?"
"No, I never spoke to him. I only know he's in distress, destitute, and has no friends. He's the man who took care of a lot of boys that were dead broke, that hard winter at Leavenworth."
"He is? If I didn't think he'd take it as an insult, I'd go out and offer him some money."
Later in the day, Peel entered Robinson's room, and approaching Conley, who was seated in the "lookout seat," near a table where a game of faro was progressing, said to him,-
"Dave, I wish you'd lend me twenty-five dollars?"
"I'll not do it," replied Conley.
"I've no money to loan."
"I don't consider it a loan," said Peel, looking steadfastly at Conley.
Then, as if influenced by a recollection of his own kindness to the man who refused him, he exclaimed, "Great God! is it possible that there is not a man in the country who will lend me twenty-five dollars?"
Robinson, who was seated by the table drawer, now drew it out, and, grasping a handful of coin, threw it eagerly upon the table.
"Here," said he, "Mr. Peel, I'll loan you twenty-five dollars, or as much more as you want. You're entirely welcome to it."
Peel turned, and fixing upon Robinson a look of mingled surprise and gratitude, responded, "Sir, you're a stranger to me. We never spoke together before, but I will gratefully accept your kindness, and thank you. All I want is twenty-five dollars, and I'll pay you as soon as I can." He then picked up five half-eagles, and placed them in the palm of his hand.
"Take more, Peel," said Robinson. "Take a hundred, or whatever you want."
"No, this is all I want;" then, fixing his gaze upon Conley, whose face was red and swollen with anger, he seized the "case keeper" used for marking the game, and hurled it violently at his head. Conley dodged, and the only effect of the act was a deep indentation in the adobe wall. Conley sprung from his seat and ran out of the building. Peel drew his revolver with the intention of pursuing, but Robinson, seizing his arm, said,-
"Stay your hand, Peel. For God's sake, don't make any disturbance."
Peel sheathed his pistol at the moment, and, taking Robinson by the hand, replied, "No; you must excuse me. I beg a thousand pardons, but I was very angry. You're the only friend I have in this country. Conley has treated me like a dog. All of'em have. I have fed them for weeks in my own house, when they had nothing to eat. My wife has cooked, and washed and ironed their clothes for them, and this is the return I get for it."
He then started to leave, but, as if suddenly reminded that he had neglected to say something, he returned; and while the tears, which he vainly tried to suppress, were streaming down his cheeks, he said,-
"I'll certainly repay this money. I would rather die than wrong you out of it."
He had been gone about twenty minutes when shots were heard.
"I reckon," said Robinson, starting for the door, "that Peel has killed Conley."
All followed, but they found that the exchange of shots was between Peel and Rucker, the latter the proprietor of a faro bank on Commercial Street, where Peel had gone and staked his money on the turn of a card.
Rucker, perceiving it, pushed the money away, remarking, in a contemptuous tone,-
"I don't want your game."
Smarting under the insult conveyed in these words, Peel raised a chair to hit Rucker on the head. Rucker fled through the rear door of the building, and entered Miller's store adjoining, the back stairs of which he hurriedly ascended, drawing his revolver by the way. Peel soon after went into the store by the front door, and inquired for Miller, who was absent. Sauntering to the rear of the apartment, which was but dimly lighted, he came suddenly upon Rucker, who had just descended the stairs, and, with revolver in hand, was waiting his approach.
"What do you want of me?" inquired Rucker, thrusting his pistol against Peel's side.
"Great God!" was Peel's instant exclamation, drawing and cocking his pistol with lightning rapidity. Their simultaneous fire gave but a single report, and both fell, emptying their pistols after they were down. Peel was wounded in the thigh, through the cheek, and in the shoulder. Rucker, hit every time, was mortally wounded, and died in a few moments. Peel was conveyed to the Salt Lake House, where his wounds received care.
Miller was clamorous for Peel's arrest, and the city police favored his execution, but the sympathies of the people were with him. He had many friends, who assured him of protection from violence, and kept his enemies in ignorance of his condition until such time as he could be removed to a place of concealment. This project was intrusted to a Mormon dignitary of high standing in the church, who was paid forty-five dollars for the service. He conveyed Peel to a sequestered hut twelve miles distant from the city, on the Jordan road, and with undue haste provided him with female apparel and a fast horse, to facilitate his escape from the country. His wounds were too severe, and he was obliged to return to the shelter of the hut, near which Miller discovered him a few days afterwards, while walking for exercise. Miller disclosed his discovery to the police, boasting, meantime, of what he had done in so public a manner, that the friends of Peel, hearing it, speedily provided for his protection. Close upon the heels of the policemen who had gone to arrest Peel they sent the wily Mormon, with instructions to convey him to a place of safety. The night was dark, and the rain froze into sleet as it fell. The policemen stopped at a wayside inn to warm and refresh themselves, and were passed by the Mormon, who, dreading the vengeance which would visit him in case of failure urged his horse into a run, and arrived in time to conduct Peel to Johnson's ranche, where he was secreted for several weeks. As soon as he was able, he made the journey on horseback to California, by the southern route, passing through San Bernardino and Los Angeles. Large rewards were offered for his arrest, but his friends, believing him to be the victim of ingratitude, would not betray him.
The death of Rucker lay heavy on the conscience of Peel, and from the moment of his arrival on the Pacific Coast, his downward career was very rapid. He associated only with gamblers and roughs, among whom the height of his ambition was to be an acknowledged chief. He was a bold man who dared to dispute the claim to this title with him, for usually he did not escape without disputing on the spot his higher title to life. Expert in pistol practice, desperate in character, Peel was never more at home than in an affray. His wanderings at length took him to Carson City, in Nevada, where his shooting exploits, and their bloody character, form a chapter in the early history of the place. It is told of him by his associates, as a mark of singular magnanimity, that he scorned all advantage of an adversary, and, under the bitterest provocation, would not attack him until satisfied that he was armed. His loyalty to this principle, as we shall see hereafter, cost him his life.
From many incidents related of the reckless life led by Peel while in Nevada, I select one, as especially illustrative. A prize fight between Tom Daly, a noted pugilist, and Billy Maguire, better known as the "Dry Dock Chicken," was planned by the roughs of Virginia City. It was intended to be a "put-up job." By the delivery of a foul blow, Maguire was to be the loser. The referee and umpire were privy to the arrangement, and were to decide accordingly. A great number of sports were in attendance. At the stage of progress in the fight agreed upon, Maguire struck his antagonist the exceptionable blow. The expected decision was given; but Izzy Lazarus, and other men familiar with the rules of the ring, said that it was not a foul. One of the initiated, named Muchacho, disputed the question with Lazarus, who gave him the lie. Drawing his pistol, he brought it to an aim, so as to clear the inner ring, and shouting, "Look out!" fired and hit Lazarus in the breast. Lazarus refrained from firing lest he should hit others, but approached Muchacho, who fired again, wounding his pistol hand. Quick as thought, Lazarus seized his pistol in the left hand, and fired, killing Muchacho in his tracks. The row now became general, and pistol shots were fired in all parts of the crowd. No others were killed, but many were severely wounded, and such was the confusion during the melee that the fatal shot of Lazarus escaped observation. Many were the conjectures on the subject, but suspicion seemed to fasten upon Lazarus. Dick Paddock, a friend of his, being in Robinson's saloon a few days after the affray, boldly avowed that he fired it. Peel overheard him, and, after informing him that Muchacho was his friend, challenged him to a fight on the spot. Both men stepped outside the saloon, took their positions, and commenced firing. Peel wounded Paddock three times, escaping unharmed himself, and the combat closed without any fatal consequences. "El Dorado Johnny" renewed the quarrel, for the double purpose of avenging Paddock and establishing a claim as chief. The next day, while walking up street, he addressed the following inquiry to Pat Lannan, who was standing in the door of his saloon,-
"Pat, what sort of a corpse do you think I'd make?"
"You don't look much like a corpse now, Johnny," replied Lannan, laughing.
"Well, I'm bound to be a corpse or a gentleman in less than five minutes," replied Johnny, passing on.
Carefully scrutinizing the inmates of each saloon as he came to it, Johnny soon saw the object of his search pass out of Pat Robinson's, a few rods ahead of him. Walking rapidly back, he turned and faced him, and, half drawing his pistol, said,-
"Peel, I'm chief."
"You're a liar," rejoined Peel, drawing his pistol, and killing Johnny instantly. The words here recorded were all that passed at the encounter. Johnny had his pistol half drawn, but Peel's superior dexterity overcame the advantage. Peel was tried and acquitted.
As no member of the company of roughs was braver than Peel, so none was more observant of the rules and principles by which they were governed. In all their relations to each other, whether friendly or hostile, any violation of a frank and manly course was severely censured, and often punished. A person guilty of any meanness, great or small, lost caste at once. If by any undue advantage, life or property was taken, the guilty person was visited with prompt retribution. Often, in the young communities which sprung up in the mining regions, prominent roughs were elected to positions in the court service. It was deemed a disgrace to suffer an arrest by an officer of this character, and with Peel it was an every-day boast that he would die sooner than submit to any such authority.
On one occasion while under the excitement of liquor, being threatened with arrest, he became uncommonly uproarious. A row was threatened, and Peel in a boisterous manner was repeating, with much expletive emphasis, "No man that ever packed a star in this city can arrest me."
Patrick Lannan, above referred to, had just been elected as policeman. He had never been connected with the roughs, and was highly respected as a peaceable, law-abiding citizen. On being informed that there was a man down the street stirring up an excitement, he rushed to the scene, and, elbowing his way through the crowd, confronted Peel. Like the hunter who mistook a grizzly for a milder type of the ursine genus, he felt that this was not the game he was after, but he had gone too far to recede. The arrest must be effected.
"No man," repeated Peel, with an oath, "that ever packed a star in this city can arrest me."
Perceiving Lannan standing near, he instantly added,-
"I'll take that back. You can arrest me, Pat, for you're no fighting man. You're a gentleman," and suiting the action the word, with a graceful bow, he surrendered his pistol to Lannan, and submitted quietly to be led away.
To the credit of the roughs of Nevada be it stated, that there were few highwaymen, thieves, or robbers among them. Few, except those who were ready to decide their quarrels with the revolver, were killed. The villainous element had been sifted from their midst at the time of the hegira to the northern mines. Those who remained had no sympathy with it. It was not to be denied, however, that they were men of extraordinary nerve, and as a general thing so tenacious of life, that, often, the first to receive a mortal wound in a fight was successful in slaying his antagonist. Indeed, so frequently was this the case, that it operated as a restraint, oftentimes, to a projected combat. Peel belonged to the class who were held in fear by tamer spirits for their supposed hold upon life. The reader will pardon a digression, for the better illustration it affords of this prevalent apprehension.
One of the most memorable fights in Nevada took place between Martin Barnhardt and Thomas Peasley. Peasley was a man of striking presence and fine ability. He had been sergeant-at-arms in the Nevada Assembly. In a quarrel with Barnhardt at Carson City, he had been wounded in the arm. Both Barnhardt and Peasley claimed to be "chief," -always a sufficient cause of quarrel between men of their stamp. Meeting Peasley one day after the fight, Barnhardt tauntingly asked him if he was as good a man then as he was at Carson.
"This," replied Peasley, "is neither the time nor place to test that question."
Soon afterwards, while Peasley was seated in the office of the Ormsby House in Carson, engaged in conversation with some friends, Barnhardt entered, and approaching him asked,-
"Are you heeled?"
"For Heaven's sake," rejoined Peasley, "are you always spoiling for a fight?"
"Yes," cried Barnhardt, and without further notice fired his revolver.
The ball passed through Peasley's heart. Seeing that he had inflicted a fatal wound, Barnhardt fled to the washroom, closing the door after him.
Peasley rose and staggered to the door. Thrusting his pistol through the sash, he fired and killed Barnhardt instantly. Falling back in the arms of his friends, they laid him upon a billiard table.
"Is Barnhardt dead?" he whispered, as life was ebbing.
"He is," was the ready answer given by half a dozen sorrowing friends.
"'Tis well. Pull my boots off, and send for my brother Andy," and with the words on his lips he expired.
Peasley was supposed to be the original of Mark Twain's "Buck Fanshaw." He was a man of the highest degree of honor, and, if his talents had been properly directed, would have distinguished himself.
I resume the history of Peel, at the point of his departure from Nevada. He left in 1867, in company with one John Bull, as a partner. They quarreled by the way and dissolved partnership, but on arriving at Salt Lake, became reconciled, and started for Helena, Montana, where Bull arrived some weeks in advance. When Peel arrived, Bull had gone to examine the mines at Indian Creek. Returning soon after, his account was so favorable, that Peel concluded to go there at, once. He came back in a week thoroughly disgusted, and very angry at Bull, whom he accused of misrepresentation and falsehood. Bull explained, and they parted seeming friends, but Peel's anger was not appeased. Meeting Bull some days after, he renewed the quarrel at Hurley and Chase's saloon. Oaths and epithets were freely exchanged, and Peel seized, and was in the act of drawing, his pistol.
"I am not heeled," said Bull, on discovering his design.
"Go, then, and heel yourself," said Peel, slapping him in the face.
Bull started, saying as he went,-
"Peel, I'll come back, sure."
"When you come," replied Peel, "come fighting."
Bull went out and armed himself. While returning, he met William Knowlden, to whom he related the circumstances of the quarrel, and told him what disposition to make of his effects in case he was killed. Passing on, he met Peel coming out of the saloon, and fired three shots before Peel could draw his revolver. Each shot took effect, one in the neck, one in the face, and a third in the left breast. Peel fell and died without uttering a word. It was the general feeling that he was treated unfairly. Bull was indicted, tried, and his conviction failed by disagreement of the jury, which stood nine for acquittal, and three for a verdict of guilty. He left the country soon after.
On a plain slab in the graveyard at Helena is the following inscription: -
I was curious to learn what suggested the last two scriptural quotations, and found that the friend had the idea that, as Peel did not have fair play, the Lord would avenge his death in some signal manner. The other sentence was thought to properly express the idea that the man was living who would redeem Peel's name from whatever obloquy might attach to it, because of his having "died with his boots on." Could there be a more strange interpretation of the scriptures?