Project Canterbury

My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter VI. In and Out of the Stage-Coach

THE palmy days of the stage-coach in the Rockies have now passed away. The advent of the railroad has left comparatively small distances to be compassed by this primitive mode of locomotion. The day when six horses were the regulation number gradually gave place to that of the four-horse team; and now two horses sleepily plod along, and carry the mail and such occasional passengers as may be compelled to travel in this way. In my early days in Wyoming and Idaho there were some superb outfits on the road, and stage-travel had its interesting and enjoyable features. Runaways, break-downs, narrow escapes of various kinds often occurred, recalling the epitaph once found on an old grave-stone:

"Weep, stranger, for a father spilled
From a stage-coach, and thereby killed.
His name, Jay Sykes, a maker of sassengers,
Slain with three other outside passengers."

The long distances through a country almost entirely uninhabited exposed the passengers to hold-ups by the "road agents," as the highway robbers are called out West. Especially was this the case when large sums of money had to be sent through Wells, Fargo's Express Company, or bars of gold and silver had to be carried from the mines. The robbers were wonderfully astute, and generally managed to know just when the consignments were made. At such times it was the custom of the stage company to have one or more fearless men, well armed, ride with the driver. But men who embark in the hazardous calling of the road-agent are very desperate, and take fearful risks when a rich haul is in sight. In these encounters it is simply a question as to which party shall get "the drop" on the other; for, however brave a guard may be, it would be sheer foolhardiness to refuse to throw up his hands when he found himself and companions suddenly covered by three or four deadly Winchesters. Again and again, one desperate road-agent has been known to rob a stagecoach full of passengers, and compel the driver to throw out the bullion and express-box, while those within the stage, though armed, have meekly looked on in amazement. I usually found it convenient, through the advice of my friends, to make my journeys when the stage did not carry such tempting booty; so it was never my fate to be held up, though frequently the stage which just preceded or followed mine was robbed. Therefore, I never had Bishop Kemper's experience in the early days of Kansas. The Bishop was the victim of a hold-up one night when he was the only passenger. The driver told the road-agent, who had covered him with a six-shooter, that his only passenger was a bishop.

"Well," said the robber, "wake up the old man. I want to go through his pockets."

When the Bishop was aroused from a sound slumber, and realized the situation, he gently remonstrated with the man behind the gun. He said:

"Surely you would not rob a poor Bishop. I have no money worth your while, and I am engaged in the discharge of my sacred duties."

"Did you say you were a Bishop?" asked the road-agent.

"Yes, just a poor Bishop."

"What church?"

"The Episcopal church."

"The hell you are! Why, that's the church I belong to. Driver, you may pass on."

I wish to speak of a few stage-drivers whom it was my good-fortune to know. It can be readily believed that some of these men were unique characters. They led lonely lives, and most of them had interesting histories. Often alone for days and nights, exposed to all kinds of weather, and taking many chances, they could, when drawn out, relate some thrilling experiences. Unattractive as such a life would seem to be, yet it possesses a strange fascination for men once accustomed to it, and, even if they abandon it for a while, they are unfit for any other vocation, and are almost sure to return. Some of the stage-drivers whom I knew had been on the road for a quarter of a century, and were among the best-known characters on the plains.

I recall now with peculiar interest an old driver by the name of Pierce. He was somewhat communicative after we had learned to know each other on many long rides. He once told me that he intended to get married soon. One could see that he was very happy at the prospect. Indeed, I could not interest him long in any other subject. He said:

"Bishop, will you tie us?"

"Certainly I will, Pierce."

"It's going to be in Rawlins, and I'll let you know in good time. We both want you, and we want the thing done up brown."

Time passed, and I did not hear from Pierce. The next year I had to go over his road again. As usual, Pierce was on the box. I had heard that the marriage had not taken place; but I hesitated, out of respect for his feelings, to bring up the subject, and as we had the whole day before us, and I was the only passenger, I felt sure he would tell me all about it. When we got well on our way he said:

"Well, Bishop, you never heard from me, did you?"

"No, Pierce, and I wondered at it. What happened?"

"I am through with the women. This is the third one I have married off to another feller--the third one that has robbed me."

"Why, Pierce, what do you mean?"

"Well, I mean just what I say. Here's the way she treated me. You see that there gal knowed I had money, and she knowed I thought a mighty sight of her. So she just worked me. She was poor, and I had bought a little house for us to live in in Rawlins, and she axed me wouldn't I let her have the money to buy the furniture and get her weddin'-clothes. I said, 'Certainly,' and she took nearly all I had. I would have trusted that gal to the end of the earth. Now, sir, the first thing I knowed she was gone. Yes, she pulled her freight and hit the trail with another feller. Of course, he was a low-down cur, but he's just what she deserved. The lawyers say if I can catch her and him I can lock 'em up. But what good will that there do? My money is gone, and the gal's gone. I tell you, it's mighty hard luck. You jest can't trust the women. They'll rob you every time if they get the chance. As I was sayin', this is the third one that has went through with my pile. They jest get you to lovin' on 'em, and they promise to marry you, and then you loan 'em your pile, and they run off with some honery cuss, and blow in your money."

I confess it was difficult to say anything very comforting to my old friend. He was evidently an easy prey to designing and unscrupulous maidens.

The next year, as I went up to the Indian agency with Pierce, I found him in a very religious frame of mind. When we were fairly started he said:

"Bishop, I have been wantin' to see you for a long time. I have been wantin' to ax you some questions about old Pluggage. You knowed him, I reckin."

"Do you mean the rich man who owned all these stage-lines?" I asked.

"Yes, that's him. Well, you know that old cuss has passed in his checks."

"Yes," I replied, "I saw the account of his death in the papers. He died in Kansas, and left a large fortune. What did you wish to ask me about him, Pierce?"

"Well, Bishop," he replied, "I've knowed old Pluggage a long time, and I'm sort o' curious about him. I've been a-waitin' till you come along to ax you about him. I could have axed some of them little bronco preachers what I've been haulin', but they don't know nothin' much, and you'se a bishop, and knows your business all right. I jest want you to locate old Pluggage for me."

"Just what do you mean, Pierce, by asking me to locate him?" I questioned.

"Why, Bishop, I want to know where in the hell he's at?"

"Oh, my dear fellow, I hope he is not there at all," I replied.

"Well, I didn't mean just that, but I want you to tell me where old Pluggage went to."

It was a rather embarrassing question, and I ventured to say that my acquaintance with Mr. Pluggage was very slight; that I had only met him once, and then thought him a pleasant gentleman, and so forth.

"Maybe you'd like some facts?" he asked. "I kin give you all the old man's p'ints. I kin get him down fine."

"Yes," I replied, "I do not like to pronounce judgment on any poor brother man. We all have our faults. On such slight knowledge of Mr. Plug-gage's character I certainly would not presume to express an opinion."

"Jest so. I see, Bishop. Now, here's the facts. I don't jest say old Pluggage would steal, even if he did hold back our money sometimes; but he was so infernal stingy he would hold on to a silver dollar till the eagle on it squawked. Does that help you to locate him?"

I shook my head doubtfully.

"Then, Bishop, nobody ever swapped horses with the old man what didn't get sick afterwards. Now, can you place him?"

And so Pierce went on reciting all the disparaging characteristics of his old boss until it became perfectly evident where he wished me to locate him. When I again pleaded my inability to penetrate into the mysteries of the future he seemed much disappointed.

"But you be a bishop, and locatin' dead people is in your line of business, ain't it?"

I had to admit that, in a general way, the subject was related to my profession.

"Don't the Good Book say, Bishop, that ther's jest two places where they kin go? Now, which place did they send old Pluggage?"

I could not but half regret that my conscience would not allow me to avail myself, in this particular case, of the doctrine of a mild purgatory; for if I could have consigned old Pluggage to a hot atmosphere for a while, and then let him out, it would have entirely satisfied Pierce's sense of justice. His was not a vindictive nature. I am not quite sure I ever entirely recovered the high opinion the stage-driver once entertained of my theological erudition.

Sometimes the stage was heavily loaded; for, besides the passengers, there was often much freight and express matter. When this was the case, and the roads were bad and the hills steep, it was the custom for all the passengers to alight and "spell" the horses, as it was called. Commercial travellers, or "drummers," in my day made up the largest class of passengers. Some of these were Jews. The Jews have many admirable qualities, and my experience with them as a race has been far from unpleasant. Indeed, among my best friends in the West I can number many Hebrews; but now and then in the stage-coach we would encounter one who insisted on his pound of flesh. He simply would not get out and walk.

"I have paid my fare," he would say. "Let old Salisbury put on more horses. He has no right to make us walk when we have paid our good money to ride. I am going to keep my seat."

Perhaps such reasoning was technically defensible, but it was squarely in the face of a universal custom which leaned to the side of mercy to the poor overworked horses; and any man who stoutly maintained the proposition was likely to get himself into trouble with driver or passengers, and sometimes with both.

When, at one time, all the other passengers had gradually reached their respective destinations, a Jew and myself were left alone. We were riding inside, for it had been raining, and the roads were very bad. When we arrived at the summit of a steep hill, up which I had footed it, the driver stopped to rest his horses and allow me to get in. Giving me a significant wink, he beckoned to me to take the seat on the box beside him. As the rain had ceased I was glad of the opportunity. We were just about to descend a long, rocky stretch of road. Billy said to me: "Now, Bishop, watch me make that cussed sheeny holler. I am going to drive his old stove-pipe over his ears." And down he went at a fearful pace, striking every rock and "chug-hole" he could, making it difficult even for me to keep my seat. In a few moments, sure enough, the Jew began to scream. Of course, the vehicle was making a great noise, and Billy found it convenient to hear nothing else. When we got down the hill the poor fellow was a pitiful sight to behold, and his precious silk hat was battered to a shapeless mass.

Another old stage-driver, well known as "Hank," from Salt Lake City, was driven to desperation by two Israelite passengers. It was a very rainy season, and the roads were indescribable. The stage had been full, and every one had been patient and considerate; but the two Hebrews stoically held down their scats; they had paid a big price, and were determined to get the full worth of their money. At last, as luck would have it, the passengers were reduced in number until the Jews alone remained. Darkness came on, and the stage was an hour or two behind schedule time, and old Hank was irritated and indignant. At the foot of a hill was a lake where it was customary to water the horses. Hence, no suspicion was aroused when Hank drpve into the shallow water. He let the horses drink, and then drove in still farther until the water came into the stage-coach. He then deliberately unhooked the traces, and, taking the mail-bag, got astride one of the wheel-horses, and rode ashore, leaving the Jews swearing at him from the half submerged coach. "We'll report you, we'll have you bounced; you shall lose your job all right, and we're going to sue old Salisbury for damages." And they carried out their threats, and Plank lost his place as driver, and the company had to pay a good round sum for damaged samples and outraged feelings. The news quickly reached Salt Lake and spread through the city. Public sympathy was at once enlisted in behalf of Hank, and a subscription started. A fine team and express-wagon were presented to him, and he was set up in the delivery business in the Mormon city. Popular sentiment brought him a large patronage, and the old stage-driver's road to a good living was made sure and easy.

When spring approached and the heavy snows in the mountains began to melt, there was more or less danger in fording the rivers. The Platte River, in Wyoming, was particularly treacherous in this respect. When I reached this river at one time on my way to Douglas I was riding a bronco. The stream looked angry and swollen, and I was debating in my mind whether or not I should plunge in and swim my horse across. Just then a kindly ranchman came upon the scene. He remonstrated with me; he said my bronco was rather small for a man of my size; that the current was swift, and that he though it would be unsafe to try it. But I said:

"I must get to Douglas to-night."

"Well," he replied, "I have a boat here, and will row you over, and we will lead the bronco."

Accordingly, we secured a rope which we tied around the bronco's neck, placing the saddle and bridle in the boat. We then pulled out, but the bronco would not budge; and all the purchase we could get on him from the boat was unavailing. The ranchman suggested that we should row down the edge of the river and lead him until the bank should get so steep there would be no standing ground for him. "Then," he added, "we can yank him in." That change of tactics was entirely successful, for we both took hold, and by a united pull, brought him into the swift current. My companion was a good oarsman, and he struck out bravely, but it was soon evident that the bronco was making straight for our canoe. The ranchman became somewhat excited lest the pony should capsize us. "Beat him back; beat him back with the other end of the rope. There ain't no room in here for three." I landed several blows on the head of the determined little beast, but they did not seem to discourage him; and it required our combined effort to pilot that frail little craft to the other shore without being upset.

Those of my readers who have ever been at Lewiston, Idaho, will remember that just across the river Clearwater, which flows by the town, is an enormous and most dangerous mountain. If one can keep the road, and has a good team, it is safe enough; but there are several places, called "hog-backs," where the road is barely wide enough to allow another team to pass; while on either side of this narrow driveway the mountain so suddenly recedes that a misstep must precipitate driver and team to imminent destruction. With this inviting prospect on the other side of the river, I found it necessary one dark night to cross the Clearwater and set out for the railway station some miles beyond. The clergyman at Lewiston had a fine pair of horses, which, while full of life, were gentle and trustworthy. On reaching the river, which the clergyman had forded a few days before, we found it unexpectedly swollen. A rope-ferry regularly plied across the river, the boat usually landing at the far-side of a little island, which teams could reach by fording when the stream was normal. My companion's eyesight was somewhat defective at night, and he did not observe that the river had risen so high as to entirely submerge the island. After hailing the boatman, and giving him the signal to come over for us, we waited until we could see the light on the boat, which was approaching the spot where the island was supposed to be. We then drove in. We had not advanced far before I heard frantic screams from the boatman.

"Go back, for God's sake, go back, or you'll drown!"

Meanwhile, the buggy seemed to be fairly throbbing under the power of the current, and our horses had almost lost their footing. I begged my brother to turn round, but he would not. I then snatched the reins from him, and got the horses round just as the boat came upon us. The captain said:

"Well, parson, one more step, and you and the Bishop would have been swept in. Were you trying to drown him?"

The experience was one that I did not soon forget.

It was rather curious and interesting to those who believe in thought transference, or mental telepathy, that both my wife and daughter--the former being at that time in Missouri, and the latter at school in Pennsylvania--were suddenly awakened that night out of sound sleep by the vivid and painful impression that I was drowning. They agree that the sensation was not in the least like an ordinary dream.

After we had been ferried safely over we came to the mountain. The wind was howling, and almost blew the buggy off the hog-back. Our lantern, suspended from the dash-board, had been blown out. It was pitch dark. Suddenly I felt the buggy sliding down-hill, and the horses gradually following. I jumped out, caught the horses by their bridles, and, feeling my way back to the road, recovered the trail. When, with great difficulty, we had relighted our lantern, we found that we had been slipping over the edge of a precipice, and that a few more steps would have hurled us down hundreds of feet.

These are some of the perils, by-the-way, which added zest to one's travels, but which it is more pleasant to describe than to experience.

I must be allowed here to pay my grateful tribute to the respectful kindness and consideration always shown me by the stage-drivers. I cannot say that I never heard an oath; but again and again, when one slipped out, most gracious apologies have followed. Bishop Clarkson's experience was never mine, but I can fully sympathize with his dilemma.

It seems that on one occasion the Bishop was due to preach at a certain town on the prairies of Nebraska. It was in the spring, and the mud was up to the hubs in places. Already it was growing dark, and the lights of the village which the Bishop was trying to reach seemed still a long way off. He became a little nervous lest he should be late for his appointment. Just then they encountered a mud-hole, and the stage-coach stuck fast. The driver laid on the lash; but in vain; the horses would not move. The Bishop was on the box with the driver, who was getting desperate. Unable to stand it longer, he turned to the Bishop, and said:

"Do you see those wheelers looking back at me?"

"Yes, Harry. What does that mean?"

"Bishop, you know I have always tried to treat you right, and I respect your cloth. But do you say you want to preach in that there town to-night?"

"Of course I do, Harry. Why don't you whip your horses?"

"Whip 'em, Bishop! 'Ain't I been a-whippin' of 'em my level best? Do you say that you must preach there to-night?"

"Of course I must."

"Well, Bishop, I ask it just once. You see these horses are used to my style of talkin' to 'em. I know it's a bad habit, and I know it's wrong, but will you please give me a dispensation just this one time? If you will, I'll get you there or bust. What do you say, Bishop?"

The Bishop felt the case to be extreme.

"Well, Harry, I suppose I'll have to. Fire away this one time."

Harry ripped out an oath, and the horses got down on their haunches, cleared the mud-hole, and landed the Bishop in town just in time to keep his appointment.

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