by lyle e davis
Recent painful events locally sometimes cause us to pause and reflect back on a time when life was simpler, problems were dealt with a lot more quickly, and efficiently.
Oh, we didn’t have all of the modern conveniences of life, air conditioning, 24/7 television programming, fast food service, and hair salons and personal services such as manicures and pedicures.
In fact, we were a rough and tumble lot, once upon a time. And when we had bad guys kill innocents, they were dealt with quickly and with a degree of finality, unlike what we have to deal with today.
If we go back a hundred years and read from a book written by a fella named Edgar Beecher Bronson, we can read of frontier justice . . . and what it was like back in “the good old days.”
“On the Plains in the late 1800's there were two types of man-killers; and these two types were subdivided into classes.
The first type numbered all who took life in contravention of law. This type was divided into three classes: A, Outlaws to whom blood-letting had become a mania; B, Outlaws who killed in defense of their spoils or liberty; C, Otherwise good men who had slain in the heat of private quarrel, and either "gone on the scout" or "jumped the country" rather than submit to arrest.
The second type included all who slew in support of law and order. This type included six classes: A, United States Marshals; B, Sheriffs and their deputies; C, Stage or railway express guards, called "messengers"; D, Private citizens organized as Vigilance Committees -- these often none too discriminating, and not infrequently the blind or willing instruments of individual grudge or greed; E, Unorganized bands of ranchmen who took the trail of marauders on life or property and never quit it; F, Detectives for Stock Growers' Associations.
Throughout the 1870's and well into the 1880's, in Wyoming, Dakota, western Kansas and Nebraska, New Mexico, and west Texas, courts were idle most of the time, and lawyers lived from hand to mouth. The then state of local society was so rudimentary that it had not acquired the habit of appeal to the law for settlement of its differences. And while it may sound an anachronism, it is nevertheless the simple truth that while life was far less secure through that period, average personal honesty then ranked higher and depredations against property were fewer than at any time since.
As soon as society had advanced to a point where the victim could be relied on to carry his wrongs to court, judges began working overtime and lawyers fattening. But, of the actual pioneers who took their lives in their hands and recklessly staked them in their everyday goings and comings (as, for instance, did all who ventured into the Sioux country north of the Platte River between 1875 and 1880) few long stayed -- no matter what their occupation -- who were slow on the trigger: it was back to Mother Earth or home for them.
Of the supporters of the law in that period, Boone May was one of the finest examples any frontier community ever boasted.
Daniel Boone May (1852, died sometime after 1878), known as Boone May, was an American gunfighter, of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
May was born in Missouri. Reputedly the "fastest gun in the Dakotas," he had the reputation that "his corpses were invariably those of undesirable citizens, never of the law abiding."
Early in 1876 he came to Cheyenne, Wyoming, with an elder brother and engaged in freighting thence overland to the Black Hills. Quite half the length of the stage road was then infested by hostile Sioux. This meant heavy risks and high pay. The brothers prospered so handsomely that, toward the end of the year, Boone withdrew from freighting, bought a few cattle and horses, and built and occupied a ranch at the stage-road crossing of Lance Creek, midway between the Platte River and Deadwood, South Dakota in the very heart of the Sioux country. Boone was then well under thirty, graceful of figure, dark-haired, wore a slender downy moustache that served only to emphasize his youth, but possessed that reserve and repose of manner most typical of the utterly fearless.
The Sioux made his acquaintance early, to their grief. One night they descended on his ranch and carried off all the stage horses and most of Boone's. Although the "sign" showed there were fifteen or twenty in the party, at daylight Boone took their trail, alone. The third day thereafter he returned to the ranch with all the stolen stock, plus a dozen split-eared Indian ponies, as compensation for his trouble, taken at what cost of strategy or blood Boone never told.
Learning of this exploit from his drivers, Al Patrick, the superintendent of the stage line, took the next coach to Lance Creek and brought Boone back to Deadwood, enlisted in his corps of "messengers"; he was too good timber to miss.
With the stages carrying gold, the danger from road agents was always present, indeed, to such an extent that the line used a ironclad coach named the "Monitor" for transporting gold. The coach, specially constructed in Cheyenne, was lined with iron plate with a "treasure box" bolted to the floor on the inside. Regular passengers were not permitted and extra guards known as "messengers" would be on board. Among those who were employed at various times as messengers were D. Boone May and Wyatt Earp. The line used both smaller coaches drawn by four horses and larger 18-passenger coaches pulled by six horses. The drivers often in arriving at their final destination would make "a show of it," thundering into town with the red or yellow Concord coaches "licky-cut," pulled by a matched team of six horses.
At that time, every coach south-bound from Deadwood to Cheyenne carried thousands in its mail-pouches and express-boxes; and once a week a treasure coach armored with boiler plate, carrying no passengers, and guarded by six or eight "messengers" or "sawed-off shotgun men," conveyed often as high as two hundred thousand dollars of hard-won Black Hills gold bars.
Thus, it naturally followed that, throughout 1877 and 1878, it was the exception for a coach to get through from the Chugwater to Jenny's stockade without being held up by bandits at least once. Any that happened to escape Jack Wadkins in the south were likely to fall prey to Dune Blackburn in the north -- the two most desperate bandit-leaders in the country.
In February, 1878, I had occasion to follow some cattle thieves from Fort Laramie to Deadwood. Returning south by coach one bitter evening we pulled into Lance Creek, eight passengers inside, Boone May and myself on the box with Gene Barnett the driver; Stocking, another famous messenger, roosted behind us atop of the coach, fondling his sawed-off shotgun.
From Lance Creek southward lay the greatest danger zone. At that point, therefore, Boone and Stocking shifted from the coach to the saddle, and, as Gene popped his whip and the coach crunched away through the snow, both dropped back perhaps thirty yards behind us.
An hour later, just as the coach got well within a broad belt of plum bushes that lined the north bank of Old Woman's Fork, out into the middle of the road sprang a lithe figure that threw a snap shot over Gene's head and halted us.
Instantly, six others surrounded the coach and ordered us down. I already had a foot on the nigh front wheel to descend, when a shot out of the brush to the west, (Boone's, I later learned) dropped the man ahead of the team.
Then followed a quick interchange of shots for perhaps a minute, certainly no more, and then I heard Boone's cool voice:
"Drive on, Gene!"
"Move an' I'll kill you!" came in a hoarse bandit's voice from the thicket east of us.
"Drive on, Gene, or I'll kill you," came then from Boone, in a tone of such chilling menace that Gene threw the bud into the leaders, and away we flew at a pace materially improved by three or four shots the bandits sent singing past our ears and over the team! The next down coach brought to Cheyenne the comforting news that Boone and Stocking had killed four of the bandits and stampeded the other three.
Within six months after Boone was employed, both Dune Blackburn and Jack Wadkins disappeared from the stage road, dropped out of sight as if the earth had opened and swallowed them, as it probably had. Boone had a way of absenting himself for days from his routine duties along the stage road. He slipped off entirely alone after this new quarry precisely as he had followed the Sioux horse-raiders and, while he never admitted it, the belief was general that he had run down and "planted" both. Indeed it is almost a certainty this is true, for beasts of their type never change their stripes, and sure it is that neither were ever seen or heard of after their disappearance from the Deadwood Trail.
Late in the Autumn of the same year, 1878, and also at or near the stage-crossing of Old Woman's Fork, Boone and one companion fought eight bandits led by a man named Frank Towle, on whose head was a large reward. This was earned by Boone at a hold-up of a Union Pacific Express Train near Green River.
This band was, in a way, more lucky, for five of the eight escaped; but of the three otherwise engaged one furnished a head which Boone toted in a gunny sack to Cheyenne and exchanged for five thousand dollars, if my memory rightly serves.
This incident was practically the last of the serious hold-ups on the Cheyenne Road. A few pikers followed and "stood up" a coach occasionally, but the strong organized bands were extinct.
Throughout 1879, Boone's activities were transferred to the Sidney-Deadwood Road, where for several months before Boone's coming, Curley Grimes and Lame Johnny had held sway. Lame Johnny was shortly thereafter captured, and hanged on the lone tree that gave the Big Cottonwood Creek its name. A few months later, Curley was captured by Boone and another, but was never jailed or tried. However, when nearing Deadwood, he tried to escape from Boone, and failed.
With the Sioux pushed back within the lines of their new reservation in South Dakota and semi-pacified, and with the Sidney Road swept clean of road-agents, life in Boone's old haunts became for him too tame. Thus it happened that, while trapping was then no better within than without the Sioux reservation, the Winter of 1879-80 found Boone and four mates camped on the Cheyenne River below the mouth of Elk Creek, well within the reserve, trapping the main stream and its tributaries. For a month they were undisturbed, and a goodly store of fur was fast accumulating. Then one fine morning, while breakfast was cooking, out from the cover of an adjacent hill and down upon them charged a Sioux war party, one hundred and fifty strong.
Boone's four mates barely had time to take cover below the hard-by river bank -- under Boone's orders -- before fire opened. Down straight upon them the Sioux charged in solid mass, heels kicking and quirts pounding their split-eared ponies, until, having come within a hundred yards, the mass broke into single file and raced past the camp, each warrior lying along the off side of his pony and firing beneath its neck--the usual but utterly stupid and suicidal Sioux tactics, for accurate fire under such conditions is of course impossible.
A four horse team crossing the Cheyene River with stagecoach and driver.
Meantime, Boone stood quietly by the camp-fire, entirely in the open, coolly potting the enemy as regularly and surely as a master wing-shot thinning a flight of ducks. Three times they so charged and Boone so received them, pouring into them a steady, deadly fire out of his Winchester and two pistols. And when, after the third charge, the war party drew off for good, forty-odd ponies and twenty-odd warriors lay upon the plain, stark evidence of Boone's wonderful nerve and marksmanship. Shortly after the fight one of his mates told me that while he and three others were doing their best, there was no doubt that nearly all the dead fell before Boone's fire.
(May was once charged with murder) In at least one instance a jury believed that the corpse was of an undesireable, Curly Grimes, so called for his dark, shoulder length locks. May and William H. H. Llewellyn, a government agent had taken Grimes, a suspected road agent into custody. Grimes' body was found frozen in the snow near Hogan's Ranch. When tried for the murder of Grimes, the jury believed Llewellyn and May's version that Grimes had attempted to escape and found the two "not guilty."
Ambrose Bierce, later to become a famous writer wrot of May: One night in the summer of 1880 I was driving in a light wagon through the wildest part of the Black Hills in South Dakota. I had left Deadwood and was well on my way to Rockerville with thirty thousand dollars on my person, belonging to a mining company of which I was the general manager. Naturally, I had taken the precaution to telegraph my secretary at Rockerville to meet me at Rapid City, then a small town, on another route; the telegram was intended to mislead the “gentlemen of the road” whom I knew to be watching my movements, and who might possibly have a confederate in the telegraph office. Beside me on the seat of the wagon sat Boone May.
Permit me to explain the situation. Several months before, it had been the custom to send a “treasure-coach” twice a week from Deadwood to Sidney, Nebraska. Also, it had been the custom to have this coach captured and plundered by “road agents.” So intolerable had this practice become—even iron-clad coaches loopholed for rifles proving a vain device—that the mine owners had adopted the more practicable plan of importing from California a half-dozen of the most famous “shotgun messengers” of Wells, Fargo & Co.—fearless and trusty fellows with an instinct for killing, a readiness of resource that was an intuition, and a sense of direction that put a shot where it would do the most good more accurately than the most careful aim. Their feats of marksmanship were so incredible that seeing was scarcely believing.
In a few weeks these chaps had put the road agents out of business and out of life, for they attacked them wherever found. One sunny Sunday morning two of them strolling down a street of Deadwood recognized five or six of the rascals, ran back to their hotel for their rifles, and returning killed them all!
Boone May was one of these avengers. When I employed him, as a messenger, he was under indictment for murder. He had trailed a “road agent” across, the Bad Lands for hundreds of miles, brought him back to within a few miles of Deadwood and picketed him out for the night. The desperate man, tied as he was, had attempted to escape, and May found it expedient to shoot and bury him. The grave by the roadside is perhaps still pointed out to the curious. May gave himself up, was formally charged with murder, released on his own recognizance, and I had to give him leave of absence to go to court and be acquitted. Some of the New York directors of my company having been good enough to signify their disapproval of my action in employing “such a man,” I could do no less than make some recognition of their dissent, and thenceforth he was borne upon the pay-rolls as “Boone May, Murderer.” Now let me get back to my story.
I knew the road fairly well, for I had previously traveled it by night, on horseback, my pockets bulging with currency and my free hand holding a cocked revolver the entire distance of fifty miles. To make the journey by wagon with a companion was luxury. Still, the drizzle of rain was uncomfortable. May sat hunched up beside me, a rubber poncho over his shoulders and a Winchester rifle in its leathern case between his knees. I thought him a trifle off his guard, but said nothing. The road, barely visible, was rocky, the wagon rattled, and alongside ran a roaring stream. Suddenly we heard through it all the clinking of a horse’s shoes directly behind, and simultaneously the short, sharp words of authority: “Throw up your hands!”
With an involuntary jerk at the reins I brought my team to its haunches and reached for my revolver. Quite needless: with the quickest movement that I had ever seen in anything but a cat—almost before the words were out of the horseman’s mouth—May had thrown himself backward across the back of the seat, face upward, and the muzzle of his rifle was within a yard of the fellow’s breast! What further occurred among the three of us there in the gloom of the forest has, I fancy, never been accurately related.
Boone May is long dead of yellow fever in Brazil, and I am the Sole Survivor.
The date of May’s death is somewhat in question. William N. Hockett in his Boone May — Gunfighter of the Black Hills states that May died in Rio de Janero in 1910. However, Bierce's reference quoted above was published as a part of his Complete Works in 1909. The article was apparently a newpaper column which had been published earlier.
Some say that May ultimately, himself, became a fugitive from justice and disappeared, allegedly to South America where it is believed he died of yellow fever.