But Davis would not abandon his "principles" nor his "integrity." "Gentlemen," he answered, "I cannot join the Vigilantes. I will not leave the region, for I have the right to be here. So I suppose you will have to hang me." The committee chose to drop the matter.
Rather than matching attorney Davis's dauntlessness, some former opponents, such as Dr. Jerome Glick, made a hasty about-face. During the trials to determine the murderer of Nicholas Tiebolt, several participants had invoked the wrath of the men who were to become the vigilantes. George Lane, for example, had ridden to Bannack to advise Sheriff Plummer that it seemed unlikely that George Ives would receive a fair trial, and bartender George Brown had testified for the defense. Dr. Glick had also been a defense witness at the trials, and since Lane and Brown had both been lynched, acquaintances reported that the doctor was "constantly fearful." After the joint hangings, he volunteered to act as a vigilante informant about "one of the strongest bands of road agents ever organized in the country."
The information which Glick provided corresponded closely with the confession Williams had obtained from Yeager. The doctor related stories of the bandits blindfolding and conducting him to a secret rendezvous where he was forced to treat their wounds. Had he not cooperated, or had he ever divulged the information, he declared, it would have been his "death warrant." Over the past months, he had lived "under the slender threads of a hundred pendant swords and saw the gaping barrels of as many rifles constantly leveled at his breast wherever he went." His current nightmare differed little from the old: he could avoid the new death warrant only by convincing the new men behind the rifles that he was telling the truth. His task would not be easy. First, Charley the Brewer claimed that in Colorado he had once seen Dr. Glick, Dutch John Wagner, and Jack Gallagher at the hideout of a band of highwaymen. Wagner was no longer alive to explain that he was in Washington at the time, nor did Gallagher have the opportunity to refute the charge. But the doctor must deal with the accusation, and he was under the additional burden of possessing a reputation for an overactive imagination. "Dr. Glick," a pioneer recalled, "was a great fellow to fill up on 'forty-rod.' When under the influence he was apt to see things." One day he rushed into camp, "swearing he had just seen a 'white mountain lion.' " On investigation, the albino cat proved to be nothing more than "an old white jackass." Despite his handicaps, Glick received a warm welcome from the Executive Committee. They listened to his stories and then assured him that "every one had confidence in him and in the truth" of his "inside history."
With Glick's confirmation of Yeager's confession, a twenty-one-man party set out on January 15 in pursuit of the remaining men on the list. They rode down the snow-dusted gulch in military fashion -- Captain Williams in the lead and his followers behind him in neat double file. One of them was riding a pony belonging to John Grannis, but it would be several days before the miner would discover the animal missing. On the same day they set out, they reached the Big Hole River, camped, and ate a meal of precooked food. While the main party rested, Williams dispatched a small group to the ranch where the suspected robber of the Forbes-Moody wagon train had taken refuge. They would be able to identify him by a chest wound. As the robber -- disguised in hood and blanket and brandishing a shotgun -- had stepped onto the singletree of the wagon he intended to loot, Melanchthon Forbes had fired from inside. Uttering a sharp cry, the robber sank to his knees, toppled from his perch, and rolled into the snow. Then he staggered to his feet, fell again, rose, and ran toward a stand of timber, abandoning the treasure as well as his own supplies, weapons, and horse. Seeing his partner's desperate flight, Dutch John Wagner whirled his horse about and also made a run for the timber, taking a shot in the shoulder as he disappeared from sight.
Though Bannack vigilantes had already hanged Wagner for his part in the attempted robbery, the other culprit -- a young man barely in his twenties and reportedly a college graduate -- was still at large. It was twilight of January 16 when Williams's detail neared the ranch. Dismounting, they approached the unlit cabin on foot. Their leader, vigilante Number 84, pounded at the door, but there was no response. Pushing open the door, he entered, with his men following. The room was cold and dark, and a putrid odor hung in the air. Advancing toward the patch of faint light filtering down from the chimney, Number 84 pulled a handful of dried grass from his pocket and lit the logs on the hearth. In the growing firelight, they could make out the form of a man lying on the bed and a dog crouching by him. Number 84 tiptoed to the bed, pressing his cocked revolver to the reclining figure's temple and saying, "Hands up!" From under the blanket, a hand and arm emerged and then, more slowly, the fingers of the other hand. They could see that the man was wearing a sling and was unable to lift the other arm. "No one with you?" Number 84 asked.
"No one," the answer came back, "no living thing but the dog."
"Are you sick, Steve?" the leader inquired.
"What's the matter?"
The young man who had answered to the name of Steve hesitated for a moment. Then he said, "I froze my feet prospecting at the head of Rattlesnake Creek." The vigilantes examined the bedridden youth, discovering that his feet were a purplish-black, while the feverish ankles were puffy with bubbles and scabbed with open sores which exuded a foul-smelling pus. For the time being, they pretended to accept his excuse. Though they offered no medical assistance, they casually removed the weapons stacked at his bedside, brought their own supplies into the house, and proceeded to cook a meal. Then, chatting and joking, they sat down to a hot supper which they offered to share with their host. Steve was unable to eat, but he did manage to prop himself up and sip some coffee.
When they had eaten, Number 84 turned to the young man seated in bed. "You're arrested for robbing the Forbes-Moody train," he informed him. "You received a wound in the breast."
Steve shook his head in denial and thumped his chest to indicate that it was sound, but they quickly gathered about him, ripped open his shirt, and stripped him naked to the waist. A gun wound was plainly visible. "You must die," the leader announced.
By torchlight they leaned a tall, slender pole against the corral, tied a rope to the protruding end, and placed a box under it. Into the chilling night air, they led the captive, hobbling upon bare feet whose already-dead skin, muscle, and bone could not sense the frozen earth. At the crude scaffold, they lifted him to the box. "Have mercy on me for my youth," he pleaded.
"You should have thought of it before," Number 84 answered, signaling his men to yank away the box. While they hovered about in the cold waiting for the pulse to cease, the scent of the dangling body's gangrenous feet attracted a hungry wolf pack, who set up their own vigil. But vigilantes disappointed the hopeful predators by burying their victim that night. The next morning they left a masterless dog to its own fate and rejoined the main party, reporting that their mission had been a success.
But whether the young man who had limped barefoot to the corral gallows was actually a participant in the wagon train assault is an unanswered question. The Forbes-Moody caravan -- consisting of three freight wagons and a string of pack animals -- had left Virginia City in mid-November 1863. Its destination was Salt Lake City, and it carried more than $75,000 in gold dust and $1,500 in paper money. While passing through Black Tail Deer Canyon, the party encountered two armed riders who claimed to be hunting lost horses. Two days later, the attack occurred in Red Rock Valley. The two horsemen who halted the train had pulled hoods, with eyeholes, over their heads and wrapped themselves in blankets. While one covered the drivers with his shotgun, the other dismounted, collected the treasury notes, and was preparing to search a wagon when Forbes shot him. As the mounted robber also fled, Moody wounded him in the shoulder. Then packers and drivers gathered the scattered treasury notes and divided the abandoned property: shotgun, horse, saddle, and twenty pounds of tea.
Due to the disguises, the packers could not identify the robbers, but they assumed that the culprits had been the men met earlier at Black Tail Deer Canyon and that the two had not been hunting livestock, but tailing the caravan. The consensus was that Dutch John Wagner and Steve Marshland had carried out the futile robbery attempt. But years later, a member of the Forbes-Moody party would deny that Marshland had participated in the Red Rock fiasco. George Goodhart claimed to remember the packers having met the horsemen in Black Tail Deer Canyon. As the two men rode away, a driver commented, "That was Dutch John and George Ives, and they are the two worst road agents there are." According to Goodhart, the robber who dismounted was Dutch John, while "George Ives sat on his horse and held his shotgun on us and waved it back and forth and said that if we moved he would fill us with buckshot." Because of his advanced age, Goodhart's memory may well have been faulty, but his story makes a point: the identity of the Black Tail Deer Canyon riders was uncertain, and that of the well-disguised robbers even more so.
A second uncertainty was the last name of the man hanged at the ranch in Big Hole Valley. Though his executioners claimed that he was Steven Marshland, a "gentlemanly" youth who "used good language," had a degree from a college in the United States, and had arrived in the area with the same party as Red Yeager, public records reveal no Steven Marshland. His last name may have been Marsten, Marsden, or Morrison. Thus all that is known of the youth lynched on January 16 is that he answered to the name of Steve (at least in his ailing condition), that he had gangrene, and that he claimed to be a miner. But that limited information is considerably more than will ever be known about one of the subsequent victims.
Throughout their trek, the vigilantes had been expecting a confrontation with the robber band, but when an advance spy returned with news that there was no united resistance ahead, Williams divided his men into groups. Charley the Brewer ended up near Hell Gate, with the assignment of investigating a Rock Creek cabin which, according to spies, might be "the rendezvous of the robbers." The brewer's companion was "Dutch Charley" Brown, who used an alias to conceal his identity as a German nobleman, but used to confide to his compatriot Beehrer stories about his life at the Bavarian court, how as a boy he would mount a Shetland pony and accompany the queen on her rides. The stout, ruddy-faced, six-footer was still a "splendid horseman," the brewer noted, but as an adult had become very careless about his dress and "would not work at anything hard." For a time, he had driven a circus bandwagon, and while sitting on the box managing the forty-eight horses hitched to his wagon, Dutch Charley had felt himself to be "in his glory." Especially proud of his stamina and endurance, he maintained his "toughness" by bathing in cold water each night before retiring. The two German Charleys made an awesome pair. Both were strong as a bull, neither ever tired, and though known as bullies, they insisted that they only "wished to see justice done."
For their journey to Rock Creek, the hardy pair had chosen not to wear gloves. Breaking trail through deep snow all the way, they followed the creek for nearly five miles. "I never suffered so much in my life with the cold," the brewer recounted. At last they sighted a lighted cabin ahead and dismounted to approach on foot. As they walked, they discovered that their fingers had become too stiff to manipulate a weapon and had to stop and rub their hands in snow to thaw them. Then they crept to the building which was supposed to be robbers' headquarters and peeked through the window. The light radiating from the fireplace did not brighten the corners of the room, but it appeared that only one man, who lay sleeping in bed, was inside. As the brewer flung open the door, Dutch Charley rushed to the bed, shoved his gun to the sleeper's head, and then bound the man's hands with an elk skin string. "I have been expecting you fellows for some time, and have not been able to sleep," the captive said, "and I just did go to sleep when you came." Speaking in German, Charley the Brewer asked his companion what they should do next. Apparently, nothing in Dutch Charley's background had instilled in him the concept of a man's right to trial. "We will hang him," he answered. They did not bother to ask the suspect's name nor question him about his supposed crime. Instead, the brewer stepped outside, located a log extending beyond the roof, and looped a rope over it. Then he went inside and informed his partner that the gibbet was ready. "We led the fellow out and hung him," the brewer reported, and "as the cabin was nice and comfortable," they barricaded the door, crawled into a bed still warm from their victim's body heat, and "slept for several hours, with the fellow hanging on one end of the house." On awaking, the two Charleys tracked down the main party, who had several successes of their own to report. As the brewer put it, "Williams did not fetch anyone in; he hung them wherever he found them."
The afternoon of January 18, the captain had camped his men several miles outside Cottonwood and not continued the march until nightfall. It was 2:00 A.M. when they surrounded the Cottonwood residence of Bill Bunton, Red Yeager's former employer at the Rattlesnake ranch. Inside the cabin were Bunton, Dave Meiklejohn (the boy who tended Bunton's horse herd and who would later become a deputy U.S. marshal of Montana), and a trapper called "Old Yank," whom Bunton had allowed to spread his blanket on the floor for the night. Williams pounded on the door and over the din being raised by his excited men identified himself as the vigilante captain and ordered the occupants to strike a light and then open the door. Rising from the bed he shared with his herder, Bunton lit a candle and quietly instructed the boy to slip through the armed men and run to summon Bunton's two business partners. Panicky from the wild chorus outside, Meiklejohn pulled on his trousers, opened the door, and attempted to squeeze through the throng. But vigilantes brandished their weapons in his face and forced him and Old Yank to remain inside, while others rushed Bunton, shouting, "You are under arrest."
"For what?" Bunton asked.
"You'll find out," Williams answered. Then he ordered Beidler to tie the suspect.
Bunton was well built and nearly six foot three. "Nobody has ever tied me," he said. "I won't stand for it." With ease he repulsed Beidler, but other vigilantes swarmed upon him, pinning him to the bed and binding his hands. Young Meiklejohn stared in disbelief to see his employer "powerless in the hands of the mob." Lying helpless on the bed, Bunton turned his head and noted for the first time that the boy was still in the room. "Dave," he said, "why didn't you do as you promised?"
Before Meiklejohn could reply, vigilantes wrestled both him and Old Yank to the floor and wound rope about their wrists. Then they led the three bound men outside, lined them in front of the door to Bunton's combined saloon and grocery store as a barricade to protect the vigilantes from gunfire from inside, and called for the rest of the robber gang to surrender. The saloon door swung slowly open, and Tex Crow, who had been sleeping inside, stumbled out to see what all the ruckus was about. They disarmed and tied him and marched him along with the other prisoners to a log house near the river. It took the vigilantes only a few minutes to discover that they had not netted many robbers in their surprise raid, and they released all but Bunton. As Meiklejohn stepped outside to freedom, Bunton called to him, begging him to return to their residence and retrieve the gold watch and chain. He had, he reminded the boy, promised to present it as a birthday gift to Billy Cook, one of his partners.
But at the cabin, Meiklejohn found that the vigilantes had "turned the contents of the house topsy turvy and looted the place." Working up his courage, he ran back and informed Williams that "his men had pillaged Bunton's cabin and taken his watch and chain." Though not a man of great intelligence, the captain possessed a sense of decency that raised him above some of his underlings. He ordered the culprit to immediately hand over the watch. "One of the members of the party produced it," Meiklejohn recalled, but still the youth was disturbed that Williams failed to discipline the thief.
At daylight vigilante officers held a secret trial, while Meiklejohn anxiously paced before the closed cabin door. During his months of employment he "had never known Bunton to do anything that he should not have done," so he was optimistic about the verdict. Yet he could not help worrying that the jurors might have gleaned false information about Bunton's Washington troubles. His employer had explained the entire situation to the boy, had in fact told his life story. Bill was a native Missourian, born in 1833 near Osborn, a settlement due east of St. Joseph. His parents, who already had one son and two daughters, named their fourth child after his father's favorite nephew, Bill Bunton. When young Bill was two, Samuel F. was born, and a few years later came Minerva. The six children were not only intelligent, but a good-looking brood, the girls pretty and the boys strong and healthy. Their father, Elijah, was a farmer and minister.
During Bill's early years, the family enjoyed prosperity, but when he was four, a severe depression swept the countryside. Though the Panic of 1837 left Elijah with a crop of corn and wheat that he literally could not give away, at least the farmers did not go hungry the way city dwellers did. Dissatisfied with his inability to get ahead in the world, Elijah cast about for new directions. By 1843 the entire county was abuzz with the wondrous beauty and great opportunity in a distant land called Oregon. Returning travelers ecstatically related tales of majestic mountain ranges covered with evergreens, a mighty river teeming with salmon, and undisturbed valleys waist high in red clover. The pure air would prevent fever and ague, and the soil was so fertile that a man could generate a fortune in wheat, fruit, and cattle.
Taken with Oregon fever, Elijah and his nephew signed a circulating agreement to depart for the Pacific coast the following spring. It was to be no mere migration to obtain free land in an area shared with a detested foreign power and occupied by Indians. Instead, the would-be colonists viewed themselves as the rightful heirs to the founding fathers of the Massachusetts Bay settlement. Theirs was a daring, high-minded experiment in forming an "independent colony," conceived to best suit the temper of the founders.
The momentousness of the upcoming migration was not wasted on eleven-year-old Bill and his siblings, who recognized that their devout father was a leader in the movement. It would take the entire winter to prepare for the journey. First, Elijah must sell the farm and with the proceeds buy materials to build a sturdy wagon, covered with waterproofed cloth and caulked and tarred for river crossings. There were also supplies to purchase. Each Bunton family would require a stock of gunpowder, lead, and shot; two hundred pounds of flour, about the same amount of bacon; a large box of cornmeal; and smaller containers of salt, sugar, saleratus, dried apples, and beans. They must also find room in the wagon for rope, rifles, a tent, bedding, cooking and eating utensils, extra clothing, and the seeds that would insure survival after their arrival. Spare axles and spokes would cover the underside of the wagon bed, and from its rear would swing a grease bucket. It would require three yoke of oxen to pull the wagon, but they must also drive several spares, along with the horses and milk cows.
In March 1844, the two Bunton families bade the old homesteads farewell, gathered the livestock herd, and set out for the rendezvous point, called Oregon camp. On a Missouri River landing located twelve miles above St. Joseph, forty-eight Buchanan County households assembled their wagons and turned their oxen into the high grass that would prepare them for the long pull ahead. The party consisted of 48 male heads of household, 60 young men, and 115 women and children. Among them, they had 72 wagons, 410 oxen, 160 cows, 143 calves, 54 horses, and 41 mules.
By May 1, they were still awaiting the arrival of emigrants from distant counties. When the company was complete, they would merge with two other trains, swelling their ranks to over a thousand and making them the largest party to date to attempt a Rocky Mountain crossing. Acutely aware that they were making history, all were impatient to get started. The more than two-thousand-mile trek, they optimistically calculated, would require four months and would be free of difficulties experienced by predecessors. For one thing, earlier travelers had marked the trail by posting notices on rocks and trees, but the 1844 train would not have to rely completely on such signs. They would have experienced guides: mountain man Moses Harris, Indian trader and trapper William Sublette, and -- especially for the section between Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger -- Joe Walker. With such careful planning, the three united trains would scarcely have dreamed of the misfortunes awaiting them.
The delay created by latecomers frayed the nerves of the Oregon campers, and the oxen were becoming so fat that they would be sure to tire on the trail. Finally, the impatient party crossed the river and set up a new camp, but it was three weeks before the final wagon at last joined them. On its arrival, the entire party became so excited that they were unable to settle down to an organizational meeting. Instead, they frantically hitched up and commenced cracking long whips over the backs of sluggish, obese oxen. Passing one another to be first, a huge, disorderly mass of lumbering wagons, flanked by horse and mule riders herding the loose stock, rolled out for Oregon Country. They headed northwest, entering Indian country and marveling at the strangeness of life on the trail. The motion of the rocking wagons, aggravated by an occasional burst of wind, left the riders feeling queasy. Then when they stopped to prepare a meal, wind gusts whipped smoke in the cooks' eyes or sometimes extinguished the fire altogether. The women, especially the pregnant ones, were anxious about the dangers ahead. One mother, for example, had sewn shrouds for each member of her family. But neither the inconveniences nor their wives' worries dampened the men's enthusiasm, nor the youngsters' thrill at participating in the grand adventure. After two days of chaotic travel, they reached the Nehama Indian Agency, where they made good use of the blacksmith shop and also paused long enough to form companies. Like Elijah Bunton, most of the men were religiously inclined and had a penchant for strict discipline. They therefore voted to organize "like a regular military expedition." As their general, they elected the Reverend Cornelius Gilliam -- a former sheriff and a veteran of both the Black Hawk and Seminole wars -- and as captains, R. W. Morrison, William Shaw, Richard Woodcock, and Elijah Bunton. Though voters selected judges, the officers decided to maintain martial law throughout the trip. As a reminder of their lofty goal, they named the combined companies the Independent Oregon Colony.
The Oregon Colony's troubles commenced on May 21, the same date the captains assumed command. The day dawned under gloomy skies, the trumpet sounded, and Elijah lined up his wagons and led the Bunton company onto the trail. Soon, rain was falling, and as they continued, the downpour steadily increased, turning the trail to muck and soaking through the oiled-cloth wagon tops, while a rising wind buffeted the straining oxen. All night the deluge continued, and the following day was but a repeat of the previous twenty-four hours. Days of rain, alternating between a drizzle and a torrential storm, dragged into weeks. Mud clung to the oxen's feet until they were the size of platters, and every stream the travelers reached was so swollen that it had either to be bridged or ferried. Sometimes a storm became so fierce that the captains were forced to order a halt. Then families huddled inside leaking tents, morosely watching their bedding soak up water while they ate cold food and complained of rheumatic joints. Because of the bad weather and the overweight oxen, their progress was so slow that by the Fourth of July, they were, as the crow flies, only one hundred miles from their starting point on the Missouri. Concluding that they would reach the mountains too late in the season, one member of the train begged the captains to persuade General Gilliam to turn back. When they refused, the worried man retraced the trail alone, while the stalwart continued on, damp clothes clinging to their backs and a nauseating odor of mold emanating from their wagons.
As they neared the Platte, the rain ceased and a dry spell set in. Each day Elijah's column rolled forward under a relentless sun tempered only by the dust fog in which they moved. After almost two months on the road, the emigrants had developed an equitable division of labor. The Bunton children fell into three categories. Those over thirteen worked like hired hands and were expected to behave like ladies and gentlemen. The two older daughters washed clothing in the streams and helped their mother cook, and the oldest son helped Elijah yoke the oxen each morning and then took charge of the loose stock. Bill and Sam, both under twelve, had more menial tasks, such as carrying buckets of water, gathering dried weeds for the fire, and helping to set up the tent each night. Other than those simple chores, they were on their own, free to run loose beside the wagon and explore the trail or help their older brother drive the livestock when they chose. If their legs cramped from too much running, they had the privilege of climbing into the wagon and riding for a brief time, but only baby Minerva was allowed to remain in the jolting wagon with the parents.
On July 11 they first sighted buffalo, an immense herd of shaggy, hunched beasts darkening the undulating prairie for as far as the eye could see. The men became so excited that General Gilliam ordered a two-day camp while they engaged in a hunting spree. By the end of the second day, the surrounding plains were dotted with buffalo carcasses. But many members of the train were disgusted by the needless slaughter led by Gilliam, and two days later he resigned as the colony's general. For the rest of the trip, Elijah and the other captains would not only have to make all decisions for their companies, but would have no one to assist them in settling the numerous disputes and breaking up fistfights that erupted.
Despite the loss of the general, there were some causes for good cheer. There was an abundance of game, they were making good time, and an infant born to the Sagers -- members of Captain Shaw's company -- appeared to be gaining strength and seemed likely to survive. Their course now paralleled the wide, muddy Platte, and on July 24 they passed Chimney Rock and caught their first view of the mountains they were to cross. To their surprise they did not appear at all ominous. But just as the train's luck seemed to be improving, the first of a series of tragedies struck the Sager family. All the youngsters in the train had become adept at exiting a moving wagon; without asking their fathers to stop, they would walk onto the tongue and leap, taking care to stay clear of the advancing wheel. On the afternoon of July 30, little Catherine Sager stepped onto the wagon tongue as usual, but as she bent her knees to spring, she caught her dress hem, lost her balance, and fell. Before Henry Sager could halt the oxen, two wheels had passed over his daughter's left leg. When he ran back and scooped her into his arms, he noted that her mangled limb dangled uselessly from her body. Word of the accident spread through the companies, providing an awesome warning to other children.
The accident, however, caused no delay. After setting Catherine's broken leg, Henry Sager pulled his wagon back in line, and by afternoon they had reached the fur trading post of Fort Laramie. When they paused for a day's rest outside the fort, a party of Sioux suddenly swept down upon them and commenced circling the wagons. There were men, women, and children dressed in colorful clothing and bearing banners that flapped in the wind as their horses galloped. As the Indians displayed their magnificent riding skills, the emigrants' children sat wide eyed at the spectacle. Finally, a group of stony-faced chieftains separated themselves from the main party and rode to greet the captains, making it known that they wished to smoke the peace pipe. To demonstrate their own good will, the captains entered the circle of brotherhood and opened the ceremony by presenting a few small gifts to the Indian chiefs. The strange sight of their Christian father smoking the long pipe with the fearsome savages was a scene for the six Bunton children to carry in memory for a lifetime.
Though several cases of what was called "camp fever" had broken out, they stayed at Laramie only two nights. On August 1, they were again on the march, all but the lead wagon eating dust. Alongside the trail, grasses were turning brittle and brown, and by noon the horizon toward which they were advancing was blurred by shimmering heat waves. Susan Seabren, who was so sick with the fever that she could not sit up, died after enduring three days of jolting in the bed her husband had made for her in their wagon. They buried her beside the trail, trampled the grave site so Indians would not dig her up and steal her clothing, and continued on. The following week brought another camp fever victim, Mrs. Frost, and three days later the teenage daughter of John Nichols died. As they started to leave the girl's trampled grave, the weeping mother fell into a state of shock at the thought of leaving her child alone on the prairie. The other women comforted her, but firmly guided her back to her wagon. In Captain Shaw's company, Henry and Naomi Sager also had a bad case of the fever, but for the sake of their seven children, both were fighting to hang on to life.
Two weeks after the girl's burial, they reached the Green River and were preparing to make camp when they heard an ominous roar and felt the ground quavering beneath their feet. Soon they could see huge clouds of dust raised by the hooves of thousands of stampeding buffalo headed in their direction. Though the stampede swerved before reaching the wagons, a few stray animals on the edge of the herd rushed toward the Sager wagon. Henry grabbed his rifle and scrambled from his sickbed to frighten them away, and though he had saved his family, in his weakened condition the effort had been too much for him. By nightfall it became apparent that he would not survive. "He himself was fully aware that he was passing away," one daughter recalled, "and he could not be re-conciled to the thought of leaving his large and helpless family." Turning his face to his crippled daughter who lay by his side, he asked, "Poor child! What will become of you?" Then he began "weeping bitterly." Captain Shaw promised the dying man that he would look after his family.
FORT LARAMIE, 1843. Courtesy of Library of Congress
(Click on image to see full size)
During the night Sager died, and the next morning the men found a hollowed-out log near the river and fashioned a coffin. After the funeral service, Captain Shaw assigned a young man to drive the Sager wagon, and with Naomi and her injured daughter prostrated inside, the train rolled out. "It seems as if it would be easier to die," Naomi said; "than to stand this jolting."
On September 16, they reached Fort Hall on the Snake River. At Fort Laramie they had replenished their flour for $40.00 a barrel and sugar for $1.50 a pint, but the Fort Hall prices were so exorbitant as to be completely beyond the emigrants' dwindled resources. Recognizing the desperateness of the situation, the captains held a meeting with Gilliam -- who had unofficially resumed his duties -- and then dispatched on horseback an advance party of young men, advising them to hurry to Oregon and return with supplies as soon as possible. It was the train's only hope for survival, Gilliam informed the messengers. As the riders disappeared from sight, the general ordered the bugler to rally the disheartened troops. In response, captains lined up their wagons, whips cracked, and the mixed teams drawn from the surviving livestock resumed their halting gait.
That evening Naomi Sager attempted to comfort her mourning family by pointing toward the setting sun and saying, "Children, look... westward. That is Oregon. That is where we are going to make our home." But Naomi would not reach the promised land. Her mouth had become so sore that she could not eat, and her high fever brought on fits of delirium. While they were camped at Pilgrim Spring, she called her children to her bedside, begging the oldest son to hold the family together. "I can remember, so distinctly, our camp where Mother died," one daughter wrote. "They dug a grave and lined it with willow boughs." Though her children searched the wagon, they could not find their mother's good dress and therefore had to lay her out in the frayed one she was wearing. Women wrapped the emaciated, calico-clad corpse in a sheet, and men placed the light bundle on the willows and then filled in the earth. After a hasty service, they hurriedly resumed their progress. For the time being, Captain and "Aunt Sally" Shaw added the disconsolate orphans to their own brood, and several nursing mothers took turns nourishing the Sager infant along with their own.
As they returned to the curving Snake River at Fort Boise, the weather turned cold, and by the time they reached the Blue Mountains, snow was falling, flakes, a pioneer wrote, that loomed "as large as hats" to the poorly clothed travelers. Suffering "indescribably" from the cold, they worked their way along the rugged trail. The wagons near the end of the train found themselves in the midst of a blizzard, but they could not stop. The two Bunton families, who had been so fortunate as to avoid accident and disease so far, now found themselves in the same dire straits as other families: shoes soleless, trouser legs reduced to fringe, and calico dresses resembling lace. To protect themselves from the cold, they resorted to wrapping in blankets, which they secured with rawhide string. They were becoming so spread out along the trail that they no longer formed a train, but instead presented a sprawling "panorama of destitution." All were praying for the return of the relief party.
Somehow, the entire train managed to keep body and soul together, and on October 12 Captain Shaw delivered the barefooted Sager orphans to Narcissa Whitman at the mission. With food donated by the Whitmans, the emigrants reached The Dalles, where they obtained salmon from the Indians and then struggled on. The ragged, hungry travelers had now abandoned their wagons, and though some were pulling handcarts piled with a few supplies, many had no possessions at all. They were in the Cascades when the relief party at last appeared. The rescuers could scarcely recognize them as the pioneers who had so joyfully set out in the spring to found the Oregon Colony. One member of the relief party was horrified at the scene: "Men in the prime of life lying among the rocks seeming ready to die,... mothers with their families... obliged to kill and eat their game dogs." After strengthening themselves on the fresh supplies, they proceeded on to Fort Vancouver, all reaching there alive. John McLoughlin noted that the train was in worse condition than the 1843 arrivals, but regulations prevented him from opening his storehouse as he had done the previous year.
His company's policy did not endear him to General Gilliam, who had commented on the trail that "although willing to live in peace with the Hudson's Bay Company... he would have no hesitation in knocking their stockade about their ears if they did not carry themselves properly." Many of the general's people were so disappointed and homesick that they would have returned to Missouri had they had the means. But as one commented, "We could not start out naked and destitute in every way." So they stayed. Willamette Valley settlers welcomed the needy families into their homes for the winter, and though there was never to be an Independent Oregon Colony, the following spring individual newcomers selected land. Elijah established a ranch in what came to be known as Bunton's Gap (now the town of Wilbur).
If the Buntons believed that in surviving the trek of 1844 they had put all peril behind them, they were in for a rude surprise. Indians represented a constant threat. And the promised land fell short on several counts. Oregon, they discovered, was "a country literally destitute of supplies"; it was "root hog or die." The first years brought much hard work and very little profit. When it rained, Elijah's land turned to a "blue mud" that was too mucky to plow. Since there were no schools, the parents had to teach the children at home, providing them a sharp rock and shingle to scratch out their letters and numbers. The first supplies that became available were found at a wilderness hotel that measured fourteen by seventeen feet and was only seven feet high.
But gradually the transplants began producing crops and building livestock herds. They replaced their moccasins with hard-soled shoes, and straw piles in the loft with enclosed rooms furnished with wooden bedsteads. Elijah contributed to the civilizing process by preaching and performing marriages, and his nephew dabbled in politics. Then when they were beginning to think of Oregon as home rather than a hostile wilderness, the Cayuse War broke out. The trouble had commenced in 1847, when Indian children died during a measles epidemic, and grieving parents blamed Dr. Marcus Whitman. During the Whitman massacre, two of the Sager children died along with their adoptive parents. The Sager brothers had survived the difficult crossing only to die by the Indians' hatchets and guns. In another attack, a war party completely destroyed the elder Bill Bunton's farm. Family members were fortunate to escape with their lives. But Providence had extended a protective hand over Elijah's family. In the following decade, the reverend died, blissfully ignorant that his two younger sons' lives had been preserved not for some noble future, but in order to keep their respective appointments at a throat slashing and a lynching.
The 1850s were a decade of rapid change in Oregon. During the Yakima Indian War, the military completely crushed native resistance, opening even more land for white settlement, and in 1859 a state was carved out of the vast area known as Oregon Country, the balance becoming Washington Territory. With the ratification of the Indian treaties, eager homesteaders flooded the fertile valleys adjoining the military posts and missions. Among the settlers were the widow Bunton, Minerva and husband, and Sam and Bill. The latter, now twenty-six, staked a claim in Walla Walla, the first county created east of the Cascades. In the Touchet River Valley, not far from the military post, he drove in his horse herd, pitched a tent, and proceeded to build a small log house with a mud roof. From early spring, his herd could graze on the sprouting grass that had once nourished a Cayuse chief's thousand-horse band, and when the summer sun dried the luxuriant grasses to a natural hay, he could cut and stack it for winter feed.
Neither Bill nor Sam had been able to find a wife. Since the male population exceeded female in the area, every girl had an abundance of suitors. It was not uncommon for a bachelor to propose to a girl of marriageable age -- anywhere from thirteen on up -- immediately upon meeting her. Many men took Indian wives, but they had the habit of returning to their tribes shortly after the ceremony. To alleviate the distress of the numerous single men, a Bachelors' Aid Society held regular meetings in the little village of Walla Walla, newly sprung up several miles east of the old Hudson's Bay Company ferry.
According to rumor, Bill once took an Indian bride, but if so, she did not stay long. The Touchet River Valley rancher led a lonely and sometimes frustrating life: spring rains brought his mud roof down upon his head, summer winds swept sand into swirling clouds so dense as to obscure the sun, and winter drafts invaded his primitive abode. Yet despite the inconveniences, the land provided excellent natural pasturage and continued to attract settlers. By 1860 the county had acquired 1,300 residents, and Bill had increased his herd to nearly one hundred horses, valued at almost $2,000, five times the worth of his residence and land.
For three years he combated loneliness and a hostile environment. Then in 1862, he sold enough livestock to buy a partnership in a saloon in Lewiston, a mining supply center that had grown up at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. Though his two brothers were quarrelsome and rather belligerent, the tall, goodlooking rancher and businessman was known as "absolutely fearless," but also easygoing, gregarious, and intelligent. He was, however, a drinking man and an avid gambler. On a Thursday afternoon in February 1863, he attended a horse race at Coppei, a settlement north of Walla Walla, and while drinking at a saloon, quarreled over a racing bet with Daniel Cogsdel, another early settler. When Cogsdel pulled a knife and attempted to stab him, Bill drew his revolver and shot his attacker twice through the body. Cogsdel died instantly, and Bill afterwards rode to Walla Walla to surrender to authorities. On Saturday the prisoner made an appearance in the small log courthouse described as "nothing more than a crib" to hold the twelve jurors together. But in this crude setting where "each man carried one or two of Colt's revolvers and a large knife," Bill received what he considered justice. After listening to the testimony of several witnesses, the jury agreed that the defendant had "committed the act in self-defense" and therefore acquitted him. Thinking the matter settled, Bill crossed to the east side of the Bitterroots and at Bannack bought a mining claim in partnership with Nathaniel Langford. Then he returned to dispose of his Walla Walla County property.
TOWN AND FORT OF WALLA WALLA, 1862. Courtesy of Library of Congress
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But Daniel Cogsdel's friends refused to accept the court's verdict. Three months after the trial, they submitted a petition to the local newspaper, contending that "a flagrant and wilful murder was committed on the person of Daniel S. Cogsdell by William Bunton." There was, the petitioners admitted, "some talk" of lynching Bunton. "If the law helps us we heartily acquiesce; if not," the petition went on, "the people are a law unto themselves." If Sheriff E. B. Whitman "dared answer" their charge against gang leader Bunton, the petitioners would "give him a dose." The scenario was the same as for the drama to be enacted at Bannack the following year: an unsubstantiated claim of an outlaw gang, the refusal to support the elected sheriff, and a body of men anxious for summary execution.
Fearful of a lynching, Sheriff Whitman rearrested Bunton, who stated that he would welcome a second trial because he could prove that he "was not guilty of the crime as alleged." Though Bunton requested bail so that he could "attend to his farm and business," the sheriff explained that it would be dangerous for him to reenter the community. Since the citizenry refused to pay for the erection of a secure jail, or even for a pair of shackles, Whitman disarmed the prisoner and placed him in custody of a hired keeper. Shortly afterwards, keeper and prisoner walked into the street and on reaching a horse which obviously had been left there specifically for him, Bunton drew a concealed weapon, mounted the saddled animal, and rode away.
When local residents refused to assist in recapturing the prisoner, the sheriff appealed to the military for aid. Though Fort Walla Walla regularly supplied a detail for such purposes, the post commander also refused to participate in the pursuit of a previously acquitted man. Whitman then turned to the Coppei petitioners for help. But "the Vigilance Committee on the Creek," as they now called themselves, stated that they would not ride with the sherifFs deputy unless "he would agree to kill Bunton on sight." They had no intentions of accompanying "any man with a warrant." And there the matter rested. The sheriff had nowhere else to turn, and Bunton was not only at large, but in grave danger. The committee had already made a trip to the Bunton ranch, warning the employee in charge "to leave the country within two hours or suffer the consequences." As for Bill, they said they would track him down and hang him in the very saloon where he had shot Cogsdel.
The fugitive's whereabouts were a mystery. Some thought that immediately after his escape, he had taken the Nez Perce trail back to the Grasshopper Greek mines, but the committee insisted that Bunton was still lurking about the neighborhood in order to operate a gang of horse rustlers. In late June, Coppei ranchers pursued two horse thieves, who abandoned their stolen livestock and managed to keep out of rifle range by hopping into a canoe and rowing across the Snake River. Though pursuers only guessed that the thieves had been Bunton and Clubfoot George, one posse member later informed the press that he was "positive" of the identification. A week later, the "daredevil" thieves struck again, only this time, there were twenty of them. As before, a vigilante posse recovered the stock but were unable to catch the "scoundrels" and make "an example" of them.
The exact date of Bunton's return to Bannack is unknown, but it is doubtful that he lingered in the Coppei area a day longer than necessary. In partnership with Dave Pickett and Frank Parrish, he established a ranch on Rattlesnake Creek. Despite his former problems with the Coppei vigilantes, an acquaintance stated, Bunton "had many friends" in Walla Walla, where "he stood well among the citizens generally." In the fall, his former Touchet River Valley neighbors drove Bunton's forty-five horses across the mountains for him, and young Meiklejohn hired on as the herder.
The Rattlesnake ranch -- located on the stage route between Bannack and Virginia City -- developed into a popular stop for travelers, and as host, Bunton became known as "the soul of hospitality" and liberal with the whiskey. The long, low-roofed log building consisted of a kitchen and single room which served as stage office, bar, and hotel. Guests spread their own blankets on the dirt floor before a massive hearth. One of Bunton's former Oregon friends, W. H. Babcock, once arrived at the inn with $1,000 in gold in his cantinas. Certain that he was being trailed by road agents, he begged Bunton for help. It was "about 10 o'clock in the evening," Babcock recalled, and "Bill was just going to bed." Handing his gold dust to the host, Babcock said, "Take care of this, Bill, and if the road agents come during the night I want you to stand in with me." Bunton pledged to protect his guest. A few hours after they had retired on a hay mattress placed before a log smoldering in the fireplace, the expected knock sounded. True to his word, Bunton refused to unbolt the door for the suspected robbers. At dawn the grateful Oregonian collected his gold, thanked his host, and resumed his journey, thinking to himself that "his friend Bunton" was, despite his "fast habits" of drinking and gambling, "a man of very strong character."
But shortly after protecting Babcock, Bunton himself fell victim to road agents. Even before its departure from Virginia City, the October 25 stage was beset with problems. The driver was sick, and it took several hours to find a substitute. Finally the stage pulled out, with Bill Rumsey holding the reins in one hand, and with the other, mercilessly whipping his teams of Indian ponies and shaggy little California broncos. Rumsey had but three passengers: Percival, Matteson, and Wilkinson. It was a cold, bleak day, and a few miles out, they rode into a raging snowstorm which forced them to slow to a walk. Then at the Stinking Water station, the new teams were not ready, and that set them back another hour. To make up the lost time, Rumsey whipped the fresh horses all the way to Dempsey's ranch, only to discover that there were no teams waiting there either. While the herders rounded up the fresh livestock, another passenger, Daniel McFadden, got aboard. "Bummer Dan," as he was called because of all the meals and drinks he had bummed before striking it rich, wore a navy revolver on each hip and appeared to be nervous.
Rumsey's arm was tiring, but as soon as the new teams were hitched, he whipped them to top speed. By the time they reached Beaverhead Rock station, the horses were completely spent, but for the first time that day they discovered the fresh teams waiting. It was dusk when they reached Rattlesnake ranch and found that Meiklejohn had given up on them and turned the horses out of the corral. There was nothing Rumsey could do but wait at the inn until morning. While he curled up in a blanket, his four passengers gathered around the pine table and started a card game. Occasionally Rumsey would hear Red Yeager call the gamblers to the bar for a drink on the house, but the game would soon resume, and when the driver arose at dawn, the card game was still in progress.
Outside, the wind was blowing hard, and rather than waiting for Meiklejohn to locate the loosed horses, Rumsey ordered him to hitch the jaded teams that had brought them the previous night. Then he called, "All aboard for Bannack!" Wilkinson had already left on horseback with his friend Bob Zachary, but Percival and Matteson climbed in and claimed the front seat, leaving Bummer Dan to sit alone in the back. After Bunton had passed around the bottle and glass for a final time, the passengers pulled down the leather curtain to keep out the blustery wind, and since Bunton was going to town, Rumsey invited him to ride on the box. "Are you good at whipping, Billy?" the driver asked. "These old 'plugs' at the wheel will need pretty constant whipping, and my exercise has lamed my arm."
Bunton urged the horses to a gallop, but within a mile they had slowed to a trot. "If these wheelers are put beyond a walk," Bunton commented, "they will fall." They crossed the creek, heading up the gulch, and the innkeeper handed over the whip and stepped down inside where it was warm. Thus Rumsey was alone on the box when he saw two riders bearing down on them from a side ravine. Before he could get to his weapon, the road agents -- wearing blankets and hoods and carrying shotguns -- ordered him to throw up his hands. The passengers emerged from the coach and also raised their hands. Seeing that Bunton had turned up his coattails to show that he was unarmed, one of the robbers ordered him to disarm the other passengers. Bunton refused. "Take what I have," he said, "but don't kill me."
"Get up, you long-legged, and hold the horses," the robber replied. Then he forced Rumsey to disarm the others and collect their money pouches. From the box, Bunton tossed his poke into the heap of weapons and purses, but the robber waved his shotgun toward Bummer Dan. "You're the man we're after," he said. "Get that strap off your shoulder, you d ---d Irish----!" Since the strap was attached to a purse holding $2,500, Dan was not eager to give it up, but he commenced fumbling with the buckle. The robber was out of patience. "Be quick," he ordered, "or I'll perforate you with lead." Taking the threat seriously, Dan hastily undid his trousers, jerked out a fringed buckskin bag, and dejectedly dropped it. "That's what we wanted," the robber said. "Now get aboard." The passengers quickly complied, and as Rumsey whipped the horses to a run, the robber shouted some parting advice: "Drive like hell and never open your mouth or we'll kill you sure."
Though Dan had lost his life savings, the other passengers had given up but a few hundred dollars between them. Still, Bunton could not resist teasing them. Anytime he was at Percival's saloon and bowling alley, he would laughingly remind the owner of the incident. "Throw up your hands!" he would say in way of greeting. Then he would add, "We were fools to be robbed, weren't we'?" But Percival failed to see any humor in his loss and took a strong dislike to Bunton for constantly joking about it. He was even heard to grumble that Bunton was probably in with the robber gang.
A second resident who had no liking for the congenial host of the Rattlesnake ranch was Wilbur Sanders. Two weeks after the stage robbery, the attorney tangled with deputy Gallagher at the inn. Perturbed at being needlessly awakened, Bunton snapped, "I won't have such a noise in the house. Parrish is sick and likely to die at any moment." The curt remark did not set well with the future vigilante prosecutor. And in late November, Bunton made a third enemy who was even more dangerous. After selling out to his two partners, he engaged in a bitter quarrel with the bartender. But since Bunton intended to relocate to Cottonwood, it appeared that the enmity between him and Red Yeager would be of little consequence. Before departing the area, he paid a final visit to one of his favorite haunts, the Bannack racetrack. Sam, who still lived in Oregon but was visiting his older brother, accompanied him, and as fate would have it, Percival also showed up at the track. When Bill greeted the saloonkeeper with the usual "Throw up your hands!" Percival retorted, "That's played out!" The surly response precipitated a quarrel that might have developed into a fatal affray had another racing fan not intervened. "If you want to fight," Jason Luce said to Bill, "why don't you take a man of your own size, instead of a smaller one?" Though Luce, the express driver, was known as a man of "low caliber and little education" who had enjoyed a "chequered career," his pointed remark brought Bill to his senses. Shamed at being designated a bully, he promptly extricated himself from the altercation with Percival and, as well, refused to resent the express driver's scorn. Luce, however, interpreted Bill's sudden pacificism as a lack of courage and later in the day approached him and accused him of being a coward. Since Luce was inebriated, Bill simply ignored the remark, but Sam, who was himself a heavy drinker, would not tolerate the insult directed to his older brother. He engaged Luce in a fistfight and soundly defeated him.
The following day, the Bunton brothers parted company. Bill headed for Cottonwood, taking along his horses and young herder, and Sam and his Oregon companion departed for Utah. At 10:00 A.M. on December 7, they registered at the Salt Lake House and that afternoon while walking the streets encountered the Bannack express driver. Luce had been awaiting their arrival, but for some reason, perhaps because he had been drunk during their fight, was uncertain of the identity of the man he was facing. "Is your name Bunton?" he asked. When Sam replied that it was, Luce sprang forward, knife already in hand, and according to witnesses, cut Sam's "neck half off the first lunge."
At the trial held December 29, 1863, Luce admitted his guilt, the jury found him guilty of "wilful murder in the first degree," and the judge pronounced a sentence of death by either hanging, beheading, or shooting. The choice was left to the condemned man. Though Luce stated that he would prefer to be shot, he was fully confident of a reprieve. And on hearing of Luce's conviction, the vigilantes did prepare a petition, requesting the Utah court to "deal lightly" with the convict since the victim was "a murderer" who belonged to an outlaw band and therefore deserved to have his throat slit. When Utah officials failed to receive the petition, the convict charged that he had been "betrayed unto death" by his own lawyer. At noon on January 12, 1864, Utah authorities led Jason Luce into the courthouse yard, where he was "shot till dead."
At the very time that Luce's trial was proceeding in Salt Lake City, Captain Williams had been on his first trip to Cottonwood -- the fruitless pursuit of Alex Carter. And though Bill Bunton was living in Cottonwood during the vigilantes' two-day spree, they did not at that time regard him as a member of an outlaw gang and therefore did not molest him. But on January 4, Yeager had charged that Bill Bunton was "second in command and stool pigeon," and the former innkeeper's unpopularity with the vigilante prosecutor could have done him no good. Thus on their January 18 return to Cottonwood, vigilantes had arrested the suspect and taken him to a riverside cabin to hold secret court on his fate.
Within a short time, his jurors concluded that he was "a notorious ruffian and had been mixed up in all sorts of shady adventures, and had a score of killings to his credit." "You should prepare to die," they informed him.
"I am innocent," Bunton protested. "You are doing a great wrong. But I know you have made up your minds to get me." Bunton's assumption that his trial was a mere formality was correct. As Williams later admitted, the guilty verdict had been reached earlier in Virginia City, with the defendant "in absentia."
At 10:00 A.M. guards marched the pinioned prisoner behind his store to the butchering scaffold. The structure consisted of two twelve-foot uprights joined at the top by a stout pole on which the butcher would crank up a beef carcass and then suspend it by its heels for skinning and dressing. Between the uprights, the executioners placed two cracker barrels from Bunton's store and covered them with a plank. A large crowd had gathered beyond the party of armed men and stood watching as Bunton climbed onto the plank. With the rope around his neck, the condemned man addressed the audience. His words suggest that despite his "fast habits," the many hours Elijah Bunton's second son had spent squirming on the rough bench of some primitive meetinghouse while his father preached a protracted sermon had not been a complete waste. "It may never be known in this world," he said, "but in the next it will be proved that I have never committed a crime or been guilty of an act unjustified." Glancing down at the scant distance between his tall frame and the ground, he added, "But since I am to be hanged, I am sorry that I cannot leap from a precipice 500 feet high instead of being forced to make such a short, uncertain jump." Then he sprang into the air. His neck broke on impact, but like George Lane, his rope had been too long, and by the time his pulse had stopped, his boots were resting on the ground.
After the vigilante guard had departed, Meiklejohn recalled, Bunton's friends cut down his body. "It was placed in a wagon and a dozen men pulled the vehicle to a nearby hilltop, where it was buried on ground that was later occupied by the Sister's academy." Immediately after the burial, the first white woman in Deer Lodge County -- a Mrs. Pelky who was keeping house for a widower and his children -- took an ax, walked to the butcher's scaffold, and chopped down both poles. "Never again," she said, "will a man be executed on that beef windlass."
When Captain Williams left Cottonwood to continue his purge, he assigned Beidler to remain behind and settle the deceased's estate: a horse herd, one-third interest in a store-saloon, and personal property. "The Vigilantes," Meiklejohn related, "took over everything that Bunton had owned." To the time of his death, deputy U.S. marshal Meiklejohn insisted that he had never known his former employer to "do a wrong thing" and that his associates were not outlaws, but honorable men. "No word of suspicion was ever uttered against Bunton's partners, Cook and Campbell," the deputy marshal argued, "nor against Dave Pickett," but Red Yeager hated Bunton and "took that means of getting even." The Cottonwood execution, he continued, "was a miscarriage of justice,... Red lied."
Granville Stuart had doubted that his former schoolmate, Erastus Yeager, knew the names of the outlaw band; deputy Jack Gallagher had accused Yeager of being a coward who was only trying to save his own neck; and Meiklejohn had called the redheaded informant a liar. But their assertions apparently gave the vigilante captain no cause to ponder as he followed Clark Fork toward Hell Gate to kill the next man on Red's list. Though from the December day he had first set out he had not encountered the slightest bit of organized resistance, Williams still believed in a large outlaw band, with lieutenants, captains, strongholds, secret signs, and an intricate spy network.
His destination lay ninety miles to the northwest. Minus his eager little lieutenant, Williams led his men in their usual doublefile formation, plodding from daylight to dark in two-foot-deep snow. The river beside them was frozen, yet when they attempted a crossing, the ice cracked and one man nearly drowned in the freezing waters. Then as they were making camp, a horse slipped into a badger hole and broke its leg. They had to shoot the crippled animal, but a second horse was more fortunate. Though it also stepped in a hole, rather than breaking its hind leg, it only stripped off the flesh from hock to hoof. Still, it was unable to travel, so when they resumed their journey the following morning, they left it at the campsite, planning to retrieve it on the return trip.
On the afternoon of January 24, they neared the little community of Hell Gate, and the captain halted and dispatched a scouting party. The scouts soon returned with a report that it would be best to rush the town "upon the dead run, taking the inhabitants by surprise." Thus at dark, the entire posse burst upon the settlement -- which boasted one general store, one saloon, and a population of twenty-five -- but Williams had somehow confused the reconnaissance information. With his men galloping at full speed behind him, he inadvertently swept past the small business section and into the empty countryside beyond. It was necessary to make a second pass, but this time Williams recognized the low, sod-roofed, log building where Cyrus and Nellie Skinner operated their saloon. The couple had heard the thunder of hooves on the first passage and were peering out the door to investigate the unusual amount of traffic on the main thoroughfare when the vigilantes returned. Quickly dismounting, they surrounded Cyrus, calling out, "Throw up your hands!"
Though Cyrus promptly raised both arms, Nellie failed to recognize the seriousness of the situation. "You must have learned that from the Bannack stage folks," she quipped. Her remark brought no smiles; instead, the armed men jerked Cyrus's hands behind him and wound a cord about his wrists. Then, much to Nellie's consternation, they led him away. As she helplessly watched, they marched the bound prisoner to Frank Worden's store, shoved him inside, and threw a cordon of guards around the building. Nellie was not a patient woman, but there was nothing she could do but wait.
J. Cyrus Skinner's rise from poor farm boy to main-street merchant had been an excruciating ascent. During the gold rush, the young Ohioan had come west seeking farmland. He was just over five foot nine, had gray eyes and dark hair, and though sinewy and well built, he was not handsome. Soon after settling in El Dorado County, California, he was convicted of a burglary, in which he stole property valued at more than $50, and was sentenced to the San Quentin prison ship as its twentieth prisoner. Inmates slept below deck on the small, decrepit bark -- five men to an eight-foot-square compartment -- and at dawn, guards raised the trapdoor and then stepped back, quickly twisting their heads away to avoid inhaling the stench of perspiration and excrement rising from the hole. Wearing whatever garb they had been clothed in upon arrest -- no matter how frayed it became -- the prisoners spent the daylight hours breaking rock in the quarry. At midmorning and night they received a cup of stale codfish soup and a hunk of underbaked bread prepared from flour laced with weevils and occasional rat droppings. Cases of food poisoning were almost as common as the rawhide floggings administered to those prisoners who dared to converse with each other. But Skinner endured two years of such existence and on release took out farmland in Yuba County.
BANNACK'S SKINNER SALOON. Photo by Boswell
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INTERIOR OF SKINNER SALOON. Photo by Boswell
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Within ten months, he was back in state prison with a three-year sentence for grand larceny. Inmates now lived in the new stone facility on Point San Quentin, but after only four months of sharing a five-by-nine cell and single slop bucket with three other men, Skinner escaped. By using his correct name -- rather than the two aliases he had given in prison -- he managed to eke out almost two years of freedom. Then in the spring of 1856, he was convicted of stealing thirteen mules and was sentenced to fourteen years. By this time, there was a wall around San Quentin, and it took the experienced convict four years to effect an escape.
When he broke out in May 1860, he headed for the Clearwater mines of Washington Territory and there somehow obtained sufficient wealth to set up a saloon in a mountain camp above the Salmon River at Florence. The following year he crossed the mountains to Bannack and opened the Elkhorn, one of the first saloons at the Grasshopper Creek mines. Everything about the ex-convict's establishment -- located on main street next to the Goodrich Hotel -- was colorful: the small log cabin had a tastefully carved false front, paned windows draped with curtains, and, over the double-door entrance, a huge pair of elk antlers Skinner had purchased for ten dollars. Inside were an ornate, highly polished bar, card tables, and, attached to one wall, tiers of sleeping bunks and one Indian scalp. In the front corner stood Buck Stinson's barber chair. The host, tending bar with sleeves pushed up to reveal well-developed biceps and blue-ink tattoos of women, children, and anchors, was as boisterous as any of his customers. Since the roughest element at the mines seemed to feel at home at the Elkhorn, keeping order was no small accomplishment, but in his new role of prosperous merchant, Skinner managed to mask any feelings of inferiority that might have arisen from an impoverished childhood and a disgraceful young manhood. Though he was sometimes rash in his actions, as evidenced by the knife scars on face and arms, when convinced he was wrong, he was equally quick to apologize. He exhibited a constant generosity, offering rounds of free drinks and contributing liberally to charity cases. At times he even assumed leadership qualities, persuading quarrelers to shake hands, or calling meetings to discuss the Indian problem. With his saloon profits, he invested in mining claims, buying into one partnership which was grossing $2,000 a day. The more cynical Bannack residents claimed that Nellie fell in love with the money, not the man, but regardless of the basis of her affection, Skinner welcomed the relationship. Perhaps it was his obvious devotion to Nellie that prompted him to stay out of the kind of trouble he had experienced in California. In June 1863, the couple followed the stampede to Alder Gulch and opened another saloon in Virginia City. Charley the Brewer trusted Skinner sufficiently to sell him beer on credit, and though most residents doubted that Cyrus and Nellie were actually married, during his business dealings with the brewer, Skinner referred to her as his "wife." Perhaps he used the word only to show his respect for her, but at any rate, he had a seemingly loyal mate and was doing a thriving business in a cabin located near Nathaniel Langford's lumberyard.
Despite his success, the fugitive from justice was undoubtedly haunted by the nightmare of one day being transported back to California in irons to serve his remaining ten years, plus an additional ten years as punishment for the escape. Though he had not been accused of any crime at Bannack or Virginia City, it was with good reason that he grew nervous over the vigilance movement that took wing after the trial and execution of George Ives. In late December, he sold his Virginia City business, and he and Nellie moved to Hell Gate and opened a saloon there.
JOHN XAVIER BEIDLER. Courtesy of MontanaHistorical Society
(Click on image to see full size)
The occupation Skinner had followed for the past three years was an appropriate one since it allowed him to support his own drinking habit at reduced rates. In March 1863, while still operating the Elkhorn, he had once traveled to Deer Lodge Valley and, on the trip, run out of his own product. At the time, the only known stock was a five-gallon keg in the hands of the Bill Fairweather-Henry Edgar party, who were preparing to embark on the famous expedition that would result in the Alder Gulch stampede. Though the party uniformly refused the thirsty miners and freighters who plagued them for "some of the stuff," an occasional traveler became insistent. "A Mr. Skinner came to the camp," Edgar recorded in his journal, "and said he came for some of 'that stuff' pointing to the keg and would have it. Bill pulled his rifle and... Powell got in between Skinner and Bill Fairweather and the trouble quieted down. Well it was for Skinner, for in another minute he would have been filled full of holes."
Skinner had survived discoveryman Fairweather's ire -- as well as a subsequent shootout between four gamblers in his Virginia City saloon -- to resume business in Hell Gate. Since he had earned a reputation for paying his bills, he was now purchasing stock on credit from Worden. With a population of only twenty-five, however, the settlement could not provide the lively business he had enjoyed at Florence, Bannack, or Virginia City, and when the loquacious saloonkeeper had no clients, he would stroll down to Worden's store to join the town idlers gathered about the fire. Since Worden was the prideful owner of the first safe in Missoula County, he had raised it to deserved prominence by mounting it on a platform. On his frequent store visits during the cold days of January 1864, Skinner would step onto the platform and heft himself to the seat of honor, where he sat gazing down upon his cronies seated on the bench. He would lean forward, slip a hand under each thigh, and rhythmically kick his heels against the safe door as he told jokes and stories.
But loafing at the town meeting place did not resolve the money shortage brought on by the lack of business, and he felt obligated to support Nellie in the style to which she had become accustomed while his mine had been producing. Therefore he and his silent partner, Andy Lutzi, requested a loan from their former business associate in Bannack, George Chrisman, and, since the latter made substantial profit from such enterprises, he agreed. On January 19, 1864, the Hell Gate partners relieved their financial distress by signing a promissory note that "Cyrus Skinner and Company" would repay George Chrisman "Three Hundred Thirty-seven and 63/100 Dollars, in good, clean gulch gold" plus "interest at the rate of 10 per cent per month." The note would come due on April 1, 1864.
The entire transaction was puzzling. If Skinner belonged to a robber band, when he needed money he could simply have relieved his Hell Gate "throne" of its 1,500 ounces of gold dust. Instead, he had behaved like a businessman, taking out a short-term loan, signing a note, and agreeing to repay with interest when business picked up in the spring. Chrisman's participation in the deal is equally mysterious. As a member of the vigilantes, the Bannack storekeeper must have been aware that Skinner's name was on Yeager's list; the borrower's chances of staying alive long enough to pay the debt were slim. But Chrisman had demanded as security "the building just west of the Goodrich" Hotel. If Skinner died before April 1, Chrisman would have legal possession of not only the $3,500 owed former sheriff Plummer, but the Elkhorn saloon as well.
Where the meeting between Skinner and Chrisman took place is unknown. If Chrisman was passing through Hell Gate, he could have filed the note upon his return to Beaverhead County. But if Skinner rode to Bannack to make the loan, he had barely had time to get back to Hell Gate for his destined meeting with Captain Williams late the night of January 24. While Skinner's interrogation was in progress, the vigilantes made a welcome discovery in the cabin next door to Cyrus and Nellie. Sprawled on a lounge, in what they presumed was a drunken stupor, lay big Alex Carter, the man who had humiliated them by escaping during their first foray. Before he could stir, they collected his pistol and bound him with rope. "These are rather tight papers, aren't they, boys?" Carter mumbled as he shook himself awake. "Give me something to smoke and tell me the news."
They held a trial for the two captives in Worden's store. As at Cottonwood, it was only a formality, but the defendants were allowed to speak. "You boys are doing this work in such a hurry," Carter advised them, "that you are bound to send some innocent men to the happy hunting ground." But his accusers did not believe that either defendant was innocent. They accused Carter of having shot Nick Tiebolt at Alder Gulch, and he did not deny it. Though the vigilantes knew nothing of Skinner's San Quentin commitments, they insisted that he had plotted the robbery and massacre of the Magruder party on the Nez Perce trail. Skinner vehemently denied the charge, and his accusers would have done well to listen to him.
But while Williams presided over the mock trial in Hell Gate, he had no way of knowing that a courtroom trial completed on the western side of the Bitterroot Range one evening prior had cleared Skinner of any involvement in the Magruder murders. Therefore the captain proceeded to press Skinner for a confession. Meanwhile, Nellie was growing extremely anxious for Cyrus's safety. Leaving a wounded man she was tending in her cabin, she walked to the store and begged guards to let her enter and testify on her husband's behalf. (It is possible that Cyrus had never revealed his California troubles to her.) But instead of admitting Nellie, they forcibly escorted her back to her residence and, on searching it, discovered her patient. "He seems to be suffering pretty bad," a guard commented. But Nellie's concern was for Cyrus. "By -------," she said, "there are two outside suffering a ----------- sight worse."
The vigilantes assured her that within a half hour she could see Cyrus, but warned her to stay inside for the time being. Thus just after midnight, she was spared the eerie sight of a torchlight procession briskly winding its way along the snowy path that led to Higgin's corral. When Nellie next saw the man she referred to as her husband, he would not be alive.
Cyrus Skinner was within moments of death. No matter how deeply he had been affected by his demeaning San Quentin experiences, he had regained enough pride to resist a shameful death. "I was not born to be hanged," he informed his captors. Then he suddenly broke through the guards and, with hands tied behind him, ran into the unbroken snow. "Shoot! shoot!" he called out to them, but instead they wrestled him down and marched him back inside the hollow square. At the corral they stopped. The torches lit the fence, and the prisoners could see two poles leaning against and extending beyond the top rail, while beneath it two soap boxes rested in the snow. Still, Carter's bravado did not desert him. While Skinner desperately argued that he had played no role in the sordid Magruder affair, Carter continued his wry comments until the vigilantes ordered him to keep quiet. "Well, then," he said, "let's have a smoke," and a guard stuck a lighted pipe between his lips, allowing him a few puffs. Even as he was prodded onto the drop, Carter remained indifferent. It was this same coolness that had won him his freedom after Nick Tiebolt's death, but at that time he had still had his good reputation.
Other than Beidler, most of Carter's acquaintances found it hard to believe that a man of his character had become a leader in an outlaw band. In his midtwenties, the tall, big-framed, imperturbable Virginian had come to California to mine in Yuba County, and from there moved to Oregon, where he earned a good living as a contract harvester in the Rogue River Valley. One fall when work was especially scarce, two college students showed up at Carter's farm describing themselves as "weak and worn" and begging to join the threshing crew so they could earn money to continue their education. "We were poor, we were only boys, and I know we did poor work," poet Joaquin Miller recalled, but Carter "gave us men's wages and paid us promptly, so that we could go back to school. He paid us and let men wait, for money was scarce." Through the close contact that fall, Miller came to respect his employer for his deep sense of honor and his calm bravery. In fact, Miller wrote, "I loved him "
Carter was equally popular with the farmers for whom he worked. In 1858, Eden precinct elected him as their delegate to the Democratic convention, and, though he was not necessarily handsome, his growing status in the community enabled him to win the heart of one of the prettiest girls in the area. Or at least Alex thought he had won her heart. He had met her while threshing her father's wheat, and after a courtship pursued each harvest, she agreed to marry him. "Carter worshipped her," acquaintances related, and "had a fine home built, consulting his fiancee concerning the details and following her likes and wishes." But one day when Alex arrived to inspect the new house, he found a letter tucked under the front door. His sweetheart wrote that she had decided to marry a wealthy banker. "I have never loved you," she admitted, "and hope never to see you again."
Carter took the loss very hard. He abandoned his farm and returned to California, where he embarked on a drinking binge that lasted for weeks. When he had pulled himself together sufficiently to go back to work, he converted his thresher teams to a train of pack horses and became a freighter in Washington Territory. There he gained such a reputation for honesty that the Mossman Express Company once entrusted him with a cargo of gold dust bags to be transported from Florence to Lewiston.
He was forty-one when he crossed to the eastern mines and at Alder Gulch befriended rancher George Ives and took a strong dislike to Beidler. After observing X.'s enthusiasm for erecting scaffolds and digging graves, Carter confronted the much smaller man. Alex "was mounted on a fine, large horse called 'Stonewall Jackson,' " Beidler reported. "I was afoot. He made a charge to ride over me and tramp me under the horse. He was full of barbwire whiskey." "You grave-digging, scaffold-building s----of---a---b, what are you doing here?" Carter asked. "Do you want to hang somebody?" Beidler replied that he "had not yet had the pleasure of digging" Alex's grave, "but hoped to soon."
When the unauthorized posse arrived at Ives's Wisconsin Creek ranch, Carter was present. "There's one good man, anyhow," a posse member commented, pointing to Alex. "I knew him on the other side of the mountains, where he was a packer, and there was no better man on the Pacific slope." But Williams, who had assumed control of the arrest party, was not impressed. Later, however, authorities decided that Carter was not involved in Tiebolt's murder, and Alex busied himself in Ives's defense, providing information and helping to locate witnesses. But before Ives's conviction and execution, Carter left the area and did not witness the hanging or hear Ives say, "Alex Carter killed the Dutchman."
Ives's gallows statement had spurred the newly formed vigilantes to track down the man they had inadvertently released, and though he had evaded them at Cottonwood, he now found himself in the exact position as Ives had been when he declared Carter guilty -- standing on a makeshift drop with a rope around his neck. During the questioning in Worden's store, he had admitted that he had shot Nick Tiebolt, but it had been in self-defense he claimed. Despite his flippant remarks, in these final seconds of his life, the proud Virginian was painfully aware that he would be remembered as a murderer. "Confess that you murdered Tiebolt," a guard demanded.
"If my hands were free," Carter said, "I'd make you take that back."
The first breeze of the new day, January 25, rippled the flames of the glowing torches, and guards pressed closer, stepping out of the surrounding darkness and entering the circle of light. Beside Carter, Cyrus Skinner murmured, "I am innocent," and then jumped.
"I am innocent," Carter repeated and also leaped from his box.
Friends buried the two men. Later the poetic young man of the Rogue River threshing crew would prepare a "leaflet" to be lain above Carter's "dishonored dust." "It is impossible," Joaquin Miller wrote, "to think of big, brave Alex Carter as a criminal.... I do not say that he was not guilty. I only say it is next to impossible to think of him as a bad man."
While Williams had been interrogating Skinner and Carter, vigilante Number 84 had led a party of two to a ranch in the Bitterroot Valley to find another man on the list, George Shears. On their arrival, the twenty-one year old, who was armed with only a knife, immediately surrendered. As they walked to the barn for the execution, they passed the corral, and Shears (or so Number 84 claimed) helpfully pointed out which horses were stolen so his captors would know which ones to take. To save the time of fashioning some sort of gallows, Number 84 looped a rope over a barn beam and then asked the youth to scale a ladder and insert his head in the noose. Shears casually complied and on reaching the top rung asked, "Gentlemen, I'm not used to this business, never having been hanged before. Shall I jump off or slide off?"
Amazed at his seeming indifference to death, Number 84 replied, "Jump!"
"All right," Shears said, "goodbye." The rope was long, and the jolt hard. Due to the time saved by skipping an examination and using a ladder scaffold, Shears died before midnight, making his execution date one day earlier than Skinner's and Carter's.
That same night a party of eight vigilantes had seized another man on the list. At a ranch cabin located in the pass between the Missoula and Flathead valleys, Robert Zachary had retired for the night. The arrest party awakened him and brought him back to Hell Gate for examination. Since it was morning when they arrived, Williams immediately held a trial, accused the young man of robbing the stage, and sentenced him to hang. As a final request, Zachary dictated a letter to his mother, brothers, and sisters in Oregon.
The Zachary family had emigrated from Missouri, traveling on the Oregon Trail one year before the Buntons. The 1843 company had also suffered greatly in the Cascades. But unlike the Bunton family, the Zacharys had created some of their own problems. The pious parents, Alexander and Sarah, were rightfully proud of their heritage, but they carried this pride over into their daily lives in a manner that annoyed others. Though Alexander had descended from what he described as a "very prominent" Virginia family whose ancestors had distinguished themselves in the American Revolution and Sarah from the "prominent" Lusters of Kentucky, the couple had met in Missouri. At their January 1822 marriage, the groom was nineteen and the bride seventeen.
Exhibiting their inherited pioneering spirit, the newlyweds first ventured to Arkansas Territory, formed less than three years earlier. Here their first five children were born, Robert B. being the youngest. But in 1836, the year in which Robert was born and Arkansas became a state, the Zacharys moved on to the Texas wilds. Coming to regard the independent republic an improper environment for their children, who now numbered seven, the parents decided to return to Missouri. Only a few weeks before they joined the wagon train bound for Oregon, Sarah gave birth to her eighth child, a daughter. Thus tiny Cynthia became one of those pioneer infants lulled to sleep by the peculiar swaying motion of an ox-drawn wagon bumping over rough trail. Robert, who was seven, fell into the same category as Bill and Sam Bunton -- too old to depend upon his mother, yet too young to be considered a man like his older brothers John and Daniel.
In crossing the plains, the 1843 train had its share of quarrels and fights, and because of his unconsciously haughty ways, Alexander Zachary soon became known as "a man fond of rows." Out of kindness, he had allowed a young man named Matney to travel with the family, but after two months on the trail, the two men had a serious disagreement. Matney went to Captain Martin complaining that "Old Zachary" had "defrauded" him of his provisions and "thrown him off in the wilderness." As punishment, the captain exiled Alexander from the train. For the remainder of the journey, John and Daniel, ages sixteen and fourteen respectively, had to share the head of household duties, daily driving the oxen and loose stock and nightly pitching the tent. Their father was forced to travel, camp, and eat alone, bereft not only of companionship, but also of all protection of the group. Not until the next banishment occurred did Alexander have a traveling companion. Because of the boycott imposed against their father, the Zachary children suffered the scorn of the rest of the company, who liked to refer to Alexander as the "big rascal." The blow to the elder Zachary's pride did nothing to improve his temper, and when a malcontent -- a teamster who had quarreled with the captain -- drifted into the exile camp, another quarrel erupted. Though both Alexander and his antagonist drew knives, they did not seriously injure each other. Still, the story of the "big rascal's" latest conflict made its rounds in the company, causing more shame for the family.
With the help of her teenage sons, Sarah Zachary managed to get her family -- now reduced to nine members -- as far west as the Cascades. In the chaos of abandoning possessions and wagons, enduring exposure to below-zero temperatures, and staving off starvation, Alexander was able to come to his family's rescue, safely guiding them through this most trying phase of the trek and settling them on virgin land east of present-day Portland. A taxation census taken shortly after their arrival in Oregon reveals that the devout Baptist family had reached the promised land with little more than their faith. The Zacharys did not own a clock, watch, mule, cow, hog, or pleasure carriage. Their poll tax amounted to twelve and a half cents, levied on the five wild horses they had acquired after arrival.
During the onerous years of reestablishing themselves, the couple had two more offspring -- daughters Frances and Nancy. The two native Oregonians of the family came to know the stories of their "prominent" southern ancestors as well as the older siblings; the deprivation and wearisome toil in the new land had failed to mitigate the fierce family pride. They regularly worshipped at a small meetinghouse where Baptist missionaries preached. And, just as riffs had broken out on the trail, the settled churchgoers also had their disputes. In church minutes, the secretary recorded a "difficulty" between Sister Zachary and a Sister Constable. When the brethren sent a peacemaking committee to the Zacharys' cabin, Sarah was unrepentant. She icily informed the elders that she was "fully satisfied that she had done right" and did not "wish to give the church any further satisfaction in the matter." Regretfully, her fellow Baptists voted her "disorderly" and "withdrew the hand of fellowship from her." Following his mother's bad example, John Zachary also became "disorderly." When he refused to appear at services to "acknowledge his waywardness," members "excluded" him. Two years later, twenty-two-year-old Daniel Zachary became equally rebellious. Not realizing that the fun-1oving youth would one day become a "venerable" citizen, a dedicated husband and father, and, as well, the "leading stockman" in his county, the Baptists also banished Daniel "under Charge of dancing and frolicking in Parties." But the Zacharys' third son, fifteen-year-old Robert, continued in the path of righteousness, at least for the time being.
In 1859 Alexander died, and since John and Daniel had both left home, Sarah asked that Robert be made executor of the estate. During the widow's time of distress and need, Robert not only provided for her, but also assumed complete care of his two young sisters, Frances and Nancy. Four years after his father's death, he followed the gold stampedes to the Clearwater River and, while mining, gradually acquired habits foreign to his strict upbringing. In August 1863, he left Elk City with a small party headed for Bannack. Their cook was Red Yeager.
Though on the morning of October 26 Bob Zachary and a partner had ridden from the Rattlesnake ranch just ahead of the coach that was later robbed, the two riders were not suspects. But after the November robbery, some citizens concluded that Zachary may have been the robber wearing a blue and green blanket and a jersey shirt as a hood, riding a blanketed blue-gray horse that belonged to rancher Robert Dempsey, and trembling from head to foot as he collected the purses. If the supposition was correct, Zachary's one-third share of the $500 booty cost him his life.
As he stood on the spot previously occupied by Alex Carter, Bob Zachary's mind flooded with memories of his family in Oregon. Together they had crossed the continent, lost their every possession, and endured indescribable suffering in the snow-choked mountains. But they had survived to carve out their fourth wilderness home. Though his widowed mother and fatherless sisters had regarded Robert as a selfless hero, he was about to bring shame to the name his family had revered for generations. In the letter he dictated to his mother, he warned his brothers that "drinking, gambling, and bad company had brought him to the gallows." As his executioners adjusted the noose to his throat, he commenced to pray aloud, asking "that God would forgive the Vigilance Committee." Since he had no friends in the area, the vigilantes had to bury him.
There was a final Hell Gate victim; the wounded man in Nellie's cabin turned out to be another man on the list, Cyrus Skinner's nephew. The vigilantes sledded Johnnie Cooper over to the store for his examination. Though the suspect had committed no known crimes while in Alder Gulch, both C. A. Broadwater and William Babcock claimed that he would have robbed them had they not outsmarted him.
The past February, Broadwater and his weary horse had made a dash up Deer Lodge Valley, with John Cooper and George Ives close on their heels. By sheer determination to save both his gold dust and his neck, Broadwater had outridden the two expert horsemen, cheating them, he supposed, of their hope to rob and kill him. Babcock had performed a similar feat, only on foot! One morning while he was walking from Bannack to Virginia City, he was suddenly taken by a strong hunch that Cooper and Ives were hiding along the trail, waiting to ambush him. Watching with "eager eyes," he soon "saw Cooper peep over the top of a sage bush and in a second afterwards Ives' head showed over another." Feeling certain that he would soon be "found missing," Babcock took a cutoff and though he was on foot and they on horseback, arrived in Virginia City before Cooper and Ives! Like Broadwater, he boasted that he had deprived the road agents of the chance to waylay him.
During his examination in the Hell Gate store, Cooper denied having attempted to rob anyone, but Captain Williams accused him of belonging to the robber band, the same charge brought against Gallagher in the absence of a specific crime. Then, as at Gallagher's examination, one vigilante recalled that the suspect had once murdered a man in another locale. On the way to his Oregon trial, the vigilante related, Cooper had broken free, leaped on a horse, and amidst one hundred shots zinging past his head, escaped unscathed. Cooper denied the allegation. Though the story may have been true, there had not been a newspaper item about it, and Cooper's former Oregon neighbors had never heard of the incident. But Williams informed the suspect that the murder accusation coupled with Yeager's confession made a death sentence "inevitable." His accusers carried the wounded man outside to the waiting sled and commenced drawing him down the path toward the corral. The soap boxes and protruding poles where Skinner, Carter, and Zachary had died were still in position.
The sled ride was hardly a fitting way for "one of the best horsemen in the west" to go to his death. The native New Yorker had migrated first to Michigan and then to the El Dorado County mines of California. But finding Oregon's wild horses much more fascinating than California's gold dust, he had given up mining to take out a ranch in the Willamette Valley. Later the excitement at the Clearwater mines attracted him to Washington Territory, but again he soon forsook excavating for bronco breaking. In the Pend Oreille country, he acquired another horse ranch. But it was in Walla Walla that Cooper had put on the exhibition that solidly established his reputation as a great rider. William Babcock had been fortunate enough to witness it, though he could scarcely believe his eyes. "This may seem a little like a fairy tale to you, but it is true," Babcock used to say. In 1860 "Johnnie rode a wild elk.... A wild elk, you know, will kick up and fight like a tiger and out buck the best bronco. Well, Cooper rode the animal successfully."
Johnnie had a sweetheart at Hell Gate, a beautiful half-Indian girl whom he planned to marry, even though his prospective father-in-law, a Frenchman named Brown, did not approve of the match. He complained that Johnnie used to borrow Brown's best horses without bothering to ask permission and that the younger man frequently had his hand out for the loan of a twenty-dollar gold piece. Brown was afraid to refuse. On the very day Captain Williams's party had reached Hell Gate, Cooper and Carter had planned to head north to Pend Oreille, but they had started drinking and then had quarreled. In an exchange of gunfire, Carter struck Cooper three times, thus delaying the departure.
As the small sleigh skimmed along the frozen path, the condemned man made two final requests. He asked that someone send a letter to his parents in New York and that he might have his pipe. "I want a good smoke before I die," he said. "I always did enjoy a smoke." Though he could barely support himself on his wounded leg, his captors hoisted him onto the box where his Uncle Cyrus had stood. Johnnie teased the hangman for a few moments by bobbing and weaving his head, but then he straightened up and accepted the noose. Hell Gate citizens built the coffin and carried out the burial. 
In leaving the little trading center, Williams appropriated the supplies and pack animal Cooper and Carter had readied for their trip. He also sent men to Pend Oreille to collect Cooper's horse herd. In the meantime, three vigilantes had located "Whiskey Bill" Graves at Fort Owen. Graves -- a native of Massachusetts, age forty-five, and described as having "ferret" eyes and a gruff personality -- was suffering from partial snowblindness and could not see the three men very well, but he could feel "Old Man" Clark's six-shooter pressing against his chest. The former Coloradoan, Clark, and the Old Californian, Graves, had met under quite different circumstances a few weeks earlier. At Dempsey's stage station, Clark and George Ives had quarreled, and Graves had stepped between them and prevented a shootout. Then when Clark had later appeared at Ives's wickiup with a posse, Graves had also been present. But since Whiskey Bill was not involved in the Tiebolt murder, he was not arrested.
The vigilantes decided to perform Graves's execution outside the fort. The reason they gave was the Indians' distaste for hanging. The charge against Whiskey Bill was being a suspect in the November stage holdup. The victims of that robbery had noted that one outlaw, wrapped in a blue and green blanket and wearing a black hood and silk top hat, had weasel-like eyes that shone through the hood's eyeholes "like a couple of stars." Though their prisoner refused to confess to the stage robbery, the party of three could see no reason to bring him back for trial. "His guilt," they maintained, "was notorious throughout all the country." Neither did they take time to rig a gallows. Instead, they bound his hands, lifted him to a seat behind a mounted rider, noosed him, and tied the other end of the rope to a strong tree limb. The man in the saddle then said, "Goodby, Bill," and raked his spurs across his horse's sides. As the animal bolted forward, Graves slid off the rump, striking the end of the rope with a neck-breaking snap. Eager to rejoin the main party, the three executioners did not bother with a burial. For some time, the corpse hung from the tree, but a rancher who lived nearby eventually grew tired of passing the grisly sight. Being "poorly off for clothing" at the time, he first removed Graves's soldier overcoat and boots; then he dug a hole, cut the rope, and let the body fall into its shallow grave.
Captain Williams's posse was in the wrong area to capture the final man, William Hunter. But before commencing the long trip back, they did encounter another suspect, one who like their last eight victims was from the other side of the Bitterroot Range. Apparently, it had been no mere coincidence that Graves was an Old Californian and Clark a Pike's Peaker. Though Williams, Beidler, and Pfouts would later represent the January foray as combat between honest citizens and outlaws, some of their contemporaries viewed the situation differently. It was not upon moral lines that the mining communities had fractured, these dissenters contended; instead, the split was regional. Several Oregon travelers who had been "driven out of the Beaver Head country by the Vigilance Committee" reported an "irrepressible conflict" going on there between the Pike's Peak miners, on one hand, and, on the other, the Californians, Oregonians, and Washingtonians. "Anyone hailing from this side of the mountains," one Oregonian complained, "is at once set down by the Pikes as a 'suspicious character' and the mere fact of being seen once in bad company insures a warning to leave the country within twenty-four hours." In a similar vein, an Idahoan wrote that " 'the other side fellows,' as Idaho men and Californians are called," had retreated to the Blackfoot (forty-five miles from present-day Helena) to "keep the V.C's from hanging them."
A packer named Tom Reily may not have been apprised of the hostility awaiting him when, in January 1864, he left Walla Walla with a crew of twenty-two men. Though he was heading for Fort Benton, he did not reach his destination. Just outside Hell Gate he ran into Williams's posse. They accused him of some "misdemeanor" and pronounced a death sentence, but Reily's men were able to rescue him before Williams could conduct the hanging. Abandoning all plans to reach Fort Benton, the twenty-three "other-siders" fled west with the vigilantes riding in pursuit for several miles.
Though the northern mission through the frozen wilderness had ended upon that rather sour note, Williams and Beidler, who had disposed of Bunton's estate and rejoined the group in Cottonwood, triumphantly led their double-file troops back to Alder Gulch. "All good men," vigilante chronicler Dimsdale wrote, thanked and congratulated the "just, self-denying, gallant" soldiers returning home from the war. (The aborted Reily skirmish was never mentioned.) "In that journey over their cold and trackless waste the setting sun had seen them," but "like Joshua's army," they "had been rewarded with success." The walls of Jericho had indeed come tumbling down: they had hanged two men at Laurin's, five at Bannack, five at Virginia City, and on the northern trip eight. Since the two German Charleys could not identify the man they had left dangling from the roof eaves, he was not included in the count. But Bill Hunter, who had escaped during the Virginia City hangings, was still a thorn in Williams's side.
Then on the last day of January, a spy brought the captain the news he had been awaiting, and he immediately assembled a party of volunteers. Their destination was a cabin located beyond the mouth of the Gallatin River. None of the posse knew Hunter by sight, but they were looking for a man who appeared to be about twenty-four years old, had a moustache, and wore a soldier's overcoat and trousers "fancifully foxed" with buckskin.
The man they were trailing had arrived at the Grasshopper mines in 1862. He was the son of a Missouri preacher, but since leaving home had developed such a fondness for drink and gambling that he used the alias Bill Hunter, out of courtesy to his father. His fellow miners found him hardworking, kind, brave, "rather good looking," and of "average" intelligence. His great fault was that "he seemed inclined to be vain and very fond of dress." And though ordinarily pacifistic, when aroused he was exceptionally outspoken. On one occasion, he had issued a threat to Dr. Glick. Hank Crawford had just shot Henry Plummer, and the doctor was preparing to perform surgery. Since Crawford had fired from behind, the rifle ball had entered the elbow and traveled the length of the arm, lodging in the wrist. Feeling there was little hope of saving Plummer's life, Glick was already nervous about opening the badly swollen arm, and just as he started to make the incision, Hunter entered the room, a shotgun resting on his arm. "I just thought that I'd tell you," Hunter said, "that if you cut an artery, or Plummer dies from the operation you are going to perform, I'm going to shoot the top of your head off." When Plummer pulled through, no one was more relieved than Dr. Glick.
In June 1863, Hunter joined the stampede to Alder Gulch, where he mined for some time and then opened a saloon on the west side of Nevada City's main street. Frequently he entertained his clients with a display of marksmanship. "He could keep whirling around," a pioneer recalled, "and in ten seconds could put twelve balls into the crown of a hat." While the George Ives trial was proceeding across from his establishment, Hunter had offended the pro-hanging faction by expressing his belief in the defendant's innocence. Then after the execution, the preacher's son stepped into the street and in a loud voice denounced "the stranglers." Angered at the epithet, Dutch Charley grabbed his shotgun and Nelson Story his breechloading carbine and ran toward the saloon. As they entered, Hunter was rounding the bar to go to the back room. When Dutch Charley attempted to follow him, the bartender hurried after the portly German and rammed a revolver barrel against his back. With one hundred customers as an audience, Story rushed up behind the bartender and struck him on the head with his carbine and then disarmed him. During these encounters, Hunter had made it to the back room and locked the door, but Dutch Charley lunged against it, knocking it from its hinges. First he peered into the dark room and then quickly back at the drinkers observing him. Though originally five supporters had followed him, Charley now noticed that all but Story had abandoned him. Swinging his shotgun in a broad circle to cover himself, he commenced backing out of the saloon and, on making it safely, initiated no more attempts to capture Hunter. The Nevada City saloonkeeper, however, was a marked man.
The following month, while Parrish, Lane, Gallagher, Lyons, and Helm were being hanged, Hunter managed to escape through the picket line by crawling in a ditch. In waist-deep drifts, he crossed the divide and descended into the Madison Valley, obtaining food and shelter from sympathetic citizens as he went. When his feet became so severely frosted that he could no longer walk, he took refuge in a cabin near the mouth of the Gallatin. Even though he explained that he was being pursued by the vigilantes, his two hosts welcomed him. "All the time he protested his innocence," Wesley Emery recalled, and "did not impress me as being a bad man." The cabin was only about eleven feet square, but there was a large fireplace and one wall was lined with a three-tier bunk. Emery and his partner shared their grub with their suffering guest and allowed him to sleep in the middle bunk. A third partner had ridden to town, promising to send Hunter a horse and gear so he could, after recovery, ride to Fort Benton to escape vigilante wrath. Neither guest nor hosts realized that a spy had already informed Williams of the final suspect's lodging place.
Williams had placed Adriel Davis in charge of the posse sent to the Gallatin River. The captain knew he could count on Adriel to get the job done. Like several other prominent vigilantes, Davis was a Mason. And like Pfouts, Williams, Beidler, Clark, and Beehrer, he had come to the area from Colorado, where he had also supported a vigilance movement. It was becoming obvious that the January successes were going to Davis's head. "Fame was too sweet for him," citizens would later conclude; Adriel "conceived the idea that Montana owed him a living for the great service he had rendered her." Up to his death, "he refused to work." Neighbors would refer to him as "Lazy Davis," but they would also remember that in the early months of 1864 he had been one of the most "courageous" vigilantes.
After a day of traveling through deep snow, the squad camped at Joseph Slade's ranch on Meadow Creek. Unaware that the following month the vigilantes would hang her husband for drunken rowdiness, Maria Slade welcomed the posse into her small stone house, where they passed the night gambling. By dawn Maria's winnings totalled $1,200. It took two more days of riding against a stiff wind to reach their destination, but about midnight they surrounded Emery's cabin. "Being rather a light sleeper," Emery recalled, "I was awakened by the tramp of horses." He got up and opened the door upon a howling blizzard, inviting the thirteen men pointing cocked weapons at him to enter and spread their blankets on the dirt floor. Then he tossed more wood on the hearth and climbed back into the top bunk, but found he was too tense to sleep. He suspected that in the bunk below him Hunter also lay with eyes wide open. The new arrivals kept at least one sentry awake all night, and once when Emery leaned down to peek into Hunter's bunk, he noted that his guest's coat had mysteriously disappeared beneath the blanket.
At daylight the thirteen men arose, rolled their blankets, and went outside to saddle their mounts. Then Davis reentered the cabin, tiptoed to Emery's bunk, and whispered, "Have you seen a man around here with foxed pants and a soldier's overcoat?"
"Is it Bill Hunter you want?" Emery asked. When Davis indicated that it was, Emery pointed at the bunk below. "I believe that's your man." Then he warned Davis that Hunter was armed and had sworn he would not be taken alive.
Davis left, but soon returned with his twelve men, who gathered about the bunk with weapons aimed at the head hidden beneath a blanket. Davis then leaned upon Hunter's body with one arm and with the other threw back the covers. "Bill, wake up," he said. Hunter was so ill he could barely speak, but he managed to say, "If you want to take me back to Virginia City and give me a fair trial, I will go with you."
"You'll have a trial," Davis assured him, "so get up and come with us."
Hunter surrendered his revolver and, while he dressed, protested that he was "innocent of any complicity in the crimes" committed by the twenty men already hanged. Since he was too weak to walk, he asked for a horse and they mounted him on one of theirs and proceeded back along the same trail they had come by, the unseated vigilante walking behind the others. On hearing them depart, Emery jumped from his bunk and hurried to the door. Outside the sun was just rising in a clear sky. "I watched them cross the little spring creek near the cabin and enter the brush and timber on the other side," he related. "That was the last time I ever saw Bill Hunter."
Not wanting to take a chance on Emery's interfering, Davis led the procession about two miles from the cabin to an opening bounded by a marsh lined with willows and trees. Before a tall cottonwood, he stopped the party. The sturdy tree was about two feet in diameter and had a crow's nest in its top branches, while one thick limb extended over a pool of frozen water. The sun lit the snowy meadow about them to a blinding sparkle as they walked the feeble youth to the patch of ice beneath the horizontal limb and slipped a loop over his head. The victim, Davis noted, seemed to take the broken promise of a Virginia City trial "as a matter of course" and "never once squealed or asked any mercy." "Just before we pulled the rope, we asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not. Then we asked him if he had any relatives," but "he refused to tell us what his real name was." The vigilante leader could not help being impressed that the young man was dying so "game." At Davis's signal, his men tugged on the rope, slowly elevating the bound man and marveling at his bodily contortions. It was, Lieutenant Beidler later admitted, "a horrible death."
Out of a sense of deep shame, Hunter had made one request: that the vigilantes bury him and keep his manner of death a secret from his friends. But several days later, travelers found the body still hanging on the limb. They buried it on a bluff overlooking the Gallatin and erected a crude headboard. That autumn Emery discovered that wild animals had "molested" the grave, and still later ditch builders uncovered the skeleton. Finally a road construction crew unearthed the remains and donated the bones to the Gallatin County museum. The stump of the sturdy cottonwood that served as gallows also ended up in a museum. As for the reputation of the Missouri preacher's son, the vigilante chronicler recorded for posterity that though Bill Hunter was "weak as a child and had scarcely strength" to speak, he did confess "his connection with the band." With the February 3 lynching of the twenty-first victim, the extended hanging spree that had commenced during the previous Christmas season had at last come to an end.