Leaning against the end of the bar in Skinner’s saloon, Caleb Stillwater looked into the half empty glass of beer in front of him, trying to decide if he should have another one or head home, when the front door burst open. Two bearskin coated teamsters stomped in through a cold blast of air, and, blowing on their hands, headed for the other end of the bar. Caleb noticed they doubled the saloon’s clientele. Old Pete, the saloon swamper, sat by the back wall, with his head on the table, snoring loudly. What a difference a few months made, Caleb thought. Back before Christmas you couldn’t get a seat in Skinners, in fact you had to fight your way through the crowd just to get to the bar and order a drink. Now the total population of the bar was four, not counting Elisher Beem, the new owner.
Caleb remembered the two teamsters. He had seen them that afternoon, herding a string of mules into Bannack with much needed supplies. The town had been snowed in, cut off from the rest of the world for the last three months, this winter of 1864. One, a giant of a man, in his early thirties, Caleb estimated, about his own age, had sandy colored hair and a full red beard; the other, maybe in his mid twenties, was a lot smaller, and dark skinned, either part Mexican or a half-breed from some southern tribe. As they shed their coats and the big man ordered whiskies from Elisher, Caleb could smell them. Definitely muleskinners.
The giant looked down the bar and recognizing Caleb as the man who ran the livery, roared “Give my friend there another beer, so’s he’ll take good care of my mules for me”.
Caleb accepted the refill and came down the bar with his hand proffered. “Thank ye. Caleb Stillwater” he said, his hand being swallowed by the big man’s huge mitt.
“Ben Pardee. Friends call me Tiny, and this here’s my partner Jimenez, Jim for short”.
Caleb’s hand was pumped until it felt like his arm had been dislocated from his shoulder, but finally he extracted it and shook hands with the little half-breed who nodded, not saying anything.
“Why don’t we sit down” boomed Tiny, and motioning to the empty tables, selected the nearest to the bar. The three of them sat down and Caleb asked about the trip up from Salt Lake City and the supplies they had brought. He told them about the high price of flour and how some merchants were hoarding it hoping for the price to go even higher. “Now that you boys have brought in a new supply, I hope they have enough stale flour to bury themselves” he concluded.
“The price of flour ain’t the only thing that rose this past winter I heard. The rumor down south is that you folk up here stretched your sheriff and a few other noble citizens. How’d it happen?” asked Tiny.
Caleb pondered the question for a moment. Unlike the rest of the town, either for or against the vigilantes, he knew a little more about both sides of the dispute from working in the livery and overhearing the conversations as men saddled or unsaddled their animals, sometimes before or after a robbery and sometimes before or after a lynching. Thinking did not come easy to Caleb, but long ago he had figured out it was to his benefit not to tell anyone about what he had heard in the stables.
“Bartender, get us another round” Tiny yelled, waiting for Caleb’s answer “and make it three whiskies” Caleb was partial to whiskey, although his meager wages from the livery dictated he drank beer when he was buying.
“You know about the problems we were having here” Caleb started to relate, “what with the holdups, murders and stock pilferage. Well, our ‘good’ citizens decided to form a vigilance committee. Things came to a head about the end of last year, when the vigilantes caught Red Yeager and George Brown pushing a string of ponies and riding a couple, none of which had their brands. Red was a good old boy. He used to drink here regular. He wasn’t that dishonest, hell, I doubt there’s a man in Bannack hasn’t ridden a nag with questionable ownership papers at some time or other”.
Caleb downed the shot of whiskey and then took a sip of his beer before continuing. “I don’t know how the vigilantes knew which trail Red was taking, but they caught them and decided to make an example of them. I heard Red didn’t figure they were serious about stretching him, that they just wanted the names of some other characters that were a little more dishonest than he was and then they would let him go. He gave them the names of some real bad hombres, but when they strung up George, Red knew they meant business so in a final attempt to placate them and gain his freedom, he added Sheriff Plummer to the list. Last fall Red had a run in with the law about a shotgun that he could not explain the ownership of and spent a couple of days in Plummer’s jail until the matter was cleared up. So I reckon he was just trying to get even with the Sheriff. But the vigilantes accepted it as gospel, figuring a man about to meet his maker wouldn’t lie”.
Tiny interrupted him to order another round of whiskies “and some beer chasers” he added, before Caleb could finish his story.
“Now I ain’t saying Plummer was lily white, and I know’d his deputies were tarnished, but I don’t think he was the leader of the gang of road agents, as they make out. Anyhow, right after New Year, the hemp committee had a meeting and that night they came and got Plummer and his two deputies and took ‘em up the creek behind this here saloon and hung ‘em from the very gallows that Plummer had built”.
“That’s about what we heard in Salt Lake, but it didn’t stop there, did it?” said Tiny, trying to get Caleb to tell the whole story.
On top of the beer he had drunk, the whiskey was starting to loosen Caleb’s tongue. “The morning after,” he went on, “the vigilante committee circulated amongst the townsfolk the list of road agents that they had gotten from Red, and right on the top of the list was Spanish Frank. Now, Spanish was a greaser; no disrespect,” Caleb added, nodding toward Jim, who showed little interest in the story, “who worked on and off for Red. He would move some horses, or deliver some steers to the butcher, or whatever else Red wanted him to do, but he never did know who owned the stock. Anyway, the townspeople decided to go and ask him some questions and half the town marched up to his cabin over there in Yankee Flats. All Spanish knew was, here’s an angry mob on his doorstep; the sheriff and his deputies were still swinging from the gallows and him not speaking the language too good. When two of the mob rushed into his cabin with guns drawn, he shot them, wounding one and killing the other. Now that enraged the townsfolk who laid siege to the cabin. They even brought up an old Howitzer from the governor’s house and blew that cabin and the little Mexican to smithereens. Afterwards they torched the place. It wasn’t until three weeks later that they found out that the Mexican they cremated wasn’t Spanish, but a friend of his, Joe Pizanthia.”
Taking time out to wet his throat, Caleb continued “Course I knew right away it wasn’t Spanish because that afternoon I found him hiding in the loft down at the livery. He was some scared, but after dark I loaned him my pinto and gave him a pair of snowshoes and told him to head for the pass. With his cabin still smoldering, no one was looking for him no more. I don’t know if he made it through, but my horse came back and I never heard of him getting lynched”.
As the whisky’s effect deepened, Caleb proceeded to tell them about the dozen or so other lynching, and how several boys known to be on the vigilante’s list suddenly decided to leave town, including the bar’s original owner, Cyrus Skinner. “Yep, Skinner was a friend of Plummer,” continued Caleb, “They knew each other in Californie before they came to Montana. So when they swung Plummer, Skinner didn’t even stop to pack. Didn’t do him no good though, ‘cause they caught him at Hell’s Gate and stretched him right there. That’s how Elisher here, who used to be Skinner’s barkeeper, got to inherit this here saloon. Wasn’t it?” said Caleb, gesturing to the man behind the bar.
Elisher just nodded his agreement. He’s a strange one, the thought penetrated Caleb’s whiskey impaired mind. Not a typical bartender. He never smiles or gets into conversation with his customers, but he’s always listening.
“Quite a goings on”, commented Tiny, interrupting Caleb’s thoughts, “and you don’t think Plummer was the leader of the road agents?”
“I know so”, replied Caleb, leaning forward in confidence, “I hear a lot in that stable of mine, and he wasn’t the leader by a long shot. They said he hung around the saloons too much and ran with the wrong crowd. Hell, a sheriff don’t catch no crooks at a ladies’ crochet party. He’s got to hang out in the saloons and talk to the riff raff. That’s where the boys hang out. There was a lot of rivalry in this town. Plummer when he was in California was a rising star in the Democrat Party, before something caused him to leave in a hurry. Here he was elected sheriff”, Caleb emphasized the word elected, “got married just last summer, and had aspirations of becoming a deputy U.S. Marshal. Our newly appointed governor”, again Caleb emphasized the word appointed, “Judge Edgerton, a Republican, could have saved Plummer, but didn’t, because he had ideas of promoting his nephew to becoming a deputy. I think when Red blurted out Plummer’s name it was all Edgerton needed to get rid of a potential rival. I ain’t saying Edgerton was a vigilante, but he had a direct pipeline to the committee. Another thing, if Plummer was the leader, with him gone first, and his supposed lieutenants swinging shortly thereafter, the problems should have stopped. But they didn’t. We’re still seeing the odd high-jacking or horse run off”.
“Well, we sure got something to tell the boys in Salt Lake when we get back”, mused Tiny, adding “Which reminds me, we want to get an early start tomorrow, so Jim and I will say good night and be heading for the hotel. Thanks for the talk”.
Caleb thanked them for the drinks, shook hands again and decided it was time for him to head home. He left Skinner’s by the back door and lurched his way along a pathway to the livery stable where he had a small room at the rear. He looked to his left and in the full moon, he could easily make out the gallows, with the two upright poles and the remnants of the noose blowing back and forth in the breeze. It looked as if it was enticing Caleb to come closer. “Not tonight” he muttered as he continued to weave his way homeward.
Caleb was suddenly awakened as two sets of hands yanked him out of his cot. By the time he was fully conscious, he was outside the livery with a man on either side, pinning his arms behind him and tying his wrists together. It was just before dawn Caleb judged as the moon was almost on the horizon. There were three other men outside, all wearing masks. Another loomed into view, leading Caleb’s pinto. He was unceremoniously hoisted onto his horse.
“What’s going on?” cried Caleb.
“Shut up”, ordered the one who looked like the leader, “Bring him with us”.
As they marched away from the livery, towards the gallows leading Caleb on his horse, it slowly dawned on Caleb where they were going. “Wait a minute”, he protested, “I ain’t one of them road agents. You fellows know me, I run the livery for old man Jenkins. I’ve never been away from town all winter”
“We know, but you talk too much” the leader told him.
“Come on boys, that was the whiskey talking. Hell, I made half of it up to keep them muleskinners buying me drinks”. Caleb looked at his six captors, recognizing three of them. One was Elisher for sure. “Ain’t that right Elisher? You tell them, you heard it all” The one accused of being Elisher remained silent. It was then that Caleb realized how the vigilantes knew where to find their kills. No doubt Elisher was promised the saloon in return for his information. It didn’t do him any good, thought Caleb; the vigilantes had hung his best customers and scared the rest away.
By now the group were underneath the gallows. “Why do you want to stretch me if you know I’m not a road agent?” asked Caleb.
“Because you know too much”, came the reply, “and come spring and all the ruckus going on around here and Virginia City gets to the outside world there might be some official inquiry and we don’t want any names mentioned that shouldn’t be. You ain’t one of us so you might be one of them”.
“I ain’t going to tell no one”, pleaded Caleb, “besides, who would believe a dumb stable hand?”
“Maybe he’s right”, one of the group said to the leader, “he’s too dumb to be a road agent, so who is going to believe a story that a stable hand might dream up. Why don’t we just run him out of town? The pass is open now, a bunch of teamsters got through yesterday”.
“No” returned the leader “ We can’t afford the chance that he might be believed. He sure as damn knows who we are”.
A rope was tossed aver the cross beam and tied to the upright. Dangling on the other end was a noose. One of the men vaulted onto the horse behind Caleb and brought the noose down, securing it around Caleb’s neck. He then dismounted quickly. “Any last words?” the leader asked Caleb.
Caleb shook his head. So this was how it was going to end, he thought. He knew he would never amount to much in this life, but he had always been honest and tried to stay on the straight and narrow, although he did enjoy a drink now and then. Maybe too much, judging by the fix he was in now.
The leader looked up at him and said, “In that case let’s get on with it”.
As he raised his hand to slap the rump of the pinto there was a blast from a nearby rifle. If the leader had not still been holding onto the reins, the pinto would have bolted. As it was Caleb felt the noose tighten around his collar.
“I think there’s been enough killing in this town for one winter. Cut him down”, came the command from a shadowy figure that held the rifle, now aimed, pointedly, at the group. A knife slit the rope holding his wrists together and Caleb then reached up and shed the noose. “Get your things and get out of town,” continued the gunman “These gentlefolk won’t be bothering you none”.
Caleb trotted his horse to the livery, ran inside and started throwing all his worldly possessions into a sack. As he was saddling the pinto, Tiny and Jim came into the livery and started readying their mules for the southbound trip. Caleb noticed Tiny was carrying a Winchester. “You ready to join a mule team?” asked Tiny.
“Yep” replied Caleb, “But why did you interfere on my behalf?”
To Caleb’s surprise, Jim grinned at him and said “ Spanish, he’ez my brodder”.
Terry Halden , a member of WWA has researched Montana Mining history and had non-fiction articles published in True West, Wild West, Tombstone Epitaph, Montana Magazine and national newspapers. He is also the writer of the book "Ghost Towns and Mining Districts of Montana". This is his first attempt at fiction. This particular story was inspired by the real life vigilantes of Montana.