of the best-known desperados the West ever produced was Joseph A.
Slade, agent of the Overland Stage Line on the mountain
division, about 1860, and in charge of large responsibilities in
a strip of country more than six hundred miles in extent, which
possessed all the ingredients for trouble in plenty.
Slade lived, in
the heyday of his career, just about the time when men from the East
were beginning to write about the newly discovered life of the West.
Bret Harte had left his indelible stamp upon the literature of the
land, and Mark Twain was soon to spread widely his impressions of life
as seen in "Roughing It"; while countless newspaper men and book
writers were edging out and getting hearsay stories of things known at
first hand by a very few careful and conscientious writer.
The hearsay man engaged in discovering the
West always dung to the regular lines of travel; and almost every one
who passed across the mountains on the Overland stage line would hear
stories about the desperate character of Slade. These stories grew by
newspaper multiplication, until at length the man was owner of the
reputation of a fiend, a ghoul, and a murderer. There was a wide
difference between this and the truth. As a matter of fact, there were
many worse desperadoes on the border.
Slade was born at
Illinois, and served in the Mexican War in 1848. He appears
to have gone into the Overland service in 1859. At once he plunged
into the business of the stage line, and soon became a terror to the
thieves and outlaws, several of whom he was the means of having shot
or hung, although he himself was nothing of a man-hunter at the time;
and indeed, in all his life he killed but one man-a case of a
reputation beyond desert, and an instance of a reputation fostered by
admiring but ignorant writers.
Slade was reported to have tied one of his
enemies, Jules Beni, more commonly called Jules, to the stake, and to
have tortured him for a day, shooting him to pieces bit by bit, and
cutting off his ears, one of which he always afterward wore in his
pocket as a souvenir. There was little foundation for this reputation
beyond the fact that he did kill Jules, and did it after Jules had
been captured and disarmed by other men.
But he had been threatened time and again
by Jules, and was once shot and left for dead by the latter, who
emptied a pistol and a shotgun at Slade, and left him lying with
thirteen bullets and buckshot in his body. Jules thought he did not
need to shoot Slade any more after that, and gave directions for his
burial as soon as he should have died.
At that Slade rose on his elbow and
promised Jules he would live and would wear one of his, Jules', ears
on his watch chain; a threat which no doubt gave rise to a certain
part of his ghastly reputation. Jules was hung for a while by the
stage people, but was let down and released on promise of leaving the
country never to return. He did not keep his promise, and it had been
better for him if he had.
Jules Beni was a big Frenchman, one of that sort of early ranchers who
were owners of small ranches and a limited number of cattle and horses --
just enough to act as a shield for thefts of livestock, and to offer
encouragement to such thefts. Before long Jules was back at his old
stamping-grounds, where he was looked on as something of a bully; and at
once he renewed his threats against Slade.
Slade went to the officers of the military post at Laramie,
the only kind of authority then in the land, which had no sort of courts
or officers, and asked them what he should do. They told him to have Jules
captured and then to kill him, else Jules would do the same for him. Slade
sent four men out to the ranch where Jules was stopping, about twelve
miles from Laramie,
while he followed in the stagecoach. These men captured Jules at a ranch a
little farther down the line, and left him prisoner at the stage station.