Vigilante Days and Ways. Lewiston has taken the law into its own hands, summarily hanging three captured outlaws in the dead of night. Meanwhile, outlaw gang leaders Charlie Harper and Henry Plummer sense danger and manage to escape capture, laying low in outlying areas. Plummer uses his down time to get married. Langford provides some insight into the short lifespans of most mining towns, miners stampeding from played-out placers to the next, newest and most promising ones. Rumors, gossip, a woman scorned and avenged…some things never change.
Chapter XII: Desertion of the Mining Camps The decay of a mining town is as sudden and rapid as its growth, and the causes which occasion it as problematical. Few, comparatively, of the great number of placer camps in the Rocky Mountains, once peopled with thousands, survive beyond the third year of their existence. As soon as the placers fail to remunerate the miners they are abandoned. The crowd departs, and if any remain, it is that sober, substantial class which is satisfied with small gain as the reward of unceasing toil. Intelligence of new discoveries brought to a failing placer will cause the immediate departure of great numbers engaged in working it. These stampedes are among the most notable features of mountain life. Sometimes when the discovery of a new placer is announced, the entire population of a mining town strive with each other to be the first to reach it. Horses are saddled, mules are packed, sluices abandoned, and the long and unmarked route filled with gold hunters. Away they go, over mountains, across streams, through canyons and pine forests, with the single object of making the first selection of a claim in the new location.
Not unfrequently it is the case that a single company is the first to learn of the discovery of a new rich placer. If the claim it has worked is abandoned the succeeding morning, it is received by the camp as incontestable evidence that a mine of superior richness has been found, –and hundreds start in pursuit of the missing company. Rumor is a fruitful cause of stampedes. Disappointments are more frequently the consequences than rewards. Instances are common where whole camps have been deserted to follow up a rumor, and be disappointed, and glad to return at last. There is nothing permanent in the life of a gold miner, –and beyond the moment, nothing strong or abiding in his associations.
Whither he goes or how he fares,
Nobody knows and nobody cares.
Florence had suffered from these causes. The roving portion of the population had gone, some to Boise, some to Bannack, and some to Deer Lodge. Cherokee Bob and Cynthia still remained, but Harper had fled, and Peoples, English, and Scott slept the “sleep that knows no waking.” Bill Willoughby, a suspected member of Harper’s gang, was Bob’s only companion.
The New Year was approaching. The good wives and daughters, in accordance with usual custom, proposed that it should be celebrated by a ball, –a proposition to which the other sex joyfully acceded. Extensive preparations were made for the supper and the ballroom attractively decorated. Cynthia made known to Bob her desire to go. He said in reply, “You shall go, and be respected like a decent woman ought to be.” So he asked Willoughby to take his “woman to the ball, and,” said he, “if things don’t go right, just report to me.” Cynthia assented to the arrangement, and Willoughby promised compliance. The guests had arrived when Cynthia, hanging on the arm of Willoughby, made her appearance. Scowls and sneers met them on every hand. A general commotion took place among the ladies. In little groups of five or six, scattered throughout the room, they whispered to each other their determination to leave if Cynthia were permitted to remain. The mangers held a consultation, and Willoughby was told that he must take Cynthia home. No alternative presenting, he obeyed.
The gentlemen present were prepared to meet any further disturbance, but none occurred, and the ball passed off pleasantly. The next day Cherokee Bob marshaled his forces to avenge the insult, but was restrained by the evident preparation with which the citizens anticipated his design. He and his companions swaggered around town flourishing their pistols and bowie-knives, boasting of their prowess, but careful of giving personal offense. It would have been well for them had their resentment cooled here, but Bob’s malice was not to be satisfied so easily. Two days had passed, and Cynthia’s humiliation was unavenged. Before the close of another it must be propitiated with blood. Accordingly, the next morning it was agreed between Bob and Willoughby that they would precipitate the battle.
The most efficient leader of the citizens was a saloon keeper by the name of Williams, familiarly called “Jakey.” He was an athletic man, and a determined enemy of the robbers, by whom he was held in great fear. He had been the hero of more than one desperate affray, and was regarded by Bob and Willoughby as the only obstacle in the way of their bloody project to kill the managers of the ball. The first act, therefore, in their contemplated tragedy was to dispose of him. “Jakey” at first sought to avoid them. They pursued him from house to house, till, tired of fleeing, he finally declared he would go no farther. Returning by a circuitous path, he was overtaken and fired upon by his pursuers while entering his saloon. He fired in return, and springing back, seized a loaded shotgun, and rushed into the street. Meantime, several citizens joined in the fight, which soon became general. The ruffians found themselves contending against fearful odds. Willoughby was slowly retreating with his face to his assailants, and firing as rapidly as possible. Cherokee Bob was pursuing the same strategy in an opposite direction. The twelfth fire exhausted Willoughby’s pistols. He turned to run, with “Jakey” in full pursuit. Exhausted from loss of blood, which was pouring from sixteen wounds, he soon fell, and throwing up his hands, exclaimed to one of his pursuers who was in the act of firing: —
“For God’s sake, don’t shoot any more. I’m dying now,” and surrendered himself to death.
Bob beat a retreat at the first fire. Dodging behind a corner, where his head only was exposed, he fired upon his pursuers until his pistols were nearly empty. While aiming for another shot, a ball fired from an opposite window brought him to the earth, mortally wounded. He was taken to his saloon, and died the third day after the affray, in the full, and to him, consolatory belief that he had killed “Jakey” Williams at the first fire of his revolver. He had a brother living at Lewiston. His last words were, “Tell my brother I have killed my man and gone on a long hunt.” His real name was Henry Talbert.
Cynthia was now without a protector. At his request she soon joined her old lover, Bill Mayfield, at Boise. This reunion was destined to be of short duration. The following spring Mayfield went to Placerville, Idaho, for a brief sojourn. A quarrel over a game of cards sprung up between him and one Evans. Mayfield drew his revolver, intending to settle it by a fatal shot, but Evans interposed: —
“I’m not heeled” –the mountain phrase for “I am not armed.”
“Then go and heel yourself,” said Mayfield, sheathing his revolver, “and look out the next time you meet me, for I’m bound to kill you at sight. One of us must die.”
The next day, while Mayfield and two friends were walking in the suburbs, they came upon a muddy spot, across which a narrow plank had been laid. This necessitated crossing it in single file. Mayfield was in the center. Evans was in a cabin beside the crossing, but a few feet distant. Seizing a double-barreled shotgun, he fired upon Mayfield from his place of concealment, through an open window. Mayfield grasped for his revolver, but fell without power to draw it, exclaiming “I’m shot.” He died in two hours, illustrating in his demise the Scriptural axiom, “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Evans was immediately arrested, but escaped from jail that night, and being furnished with a horse by a friend, fled the country, and was never apprehended.
After Mayfield’s death Cynthia entered upon that career of promiscuous infamy which is the certain destiny of all women of her class. It is written of her that “she has been the cause of more personal collisions and estrangements than any other woman in the Rocky Mountains.”
Excerpted from Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies, the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, by Nathaniel Pitt Langford, published by D. D. Merrill Company in 1893.
Cover photo is Ole Elliot’s The Combination Saloon in Utah, late 1800.