Major Ben C. Truman in 1881
For a long time, “Baldy Greene ” was the favorite stage driver on the overland route between Virginia City and Austin, Nevada. This remarkable specimen of a modern Jehu was a thoroughbred in every particular. He was called Baldy on account of his caput, which was singularly bare, and he rejoiced in the name. He once drove Ben Holladay from Virginia City to Austin, 185 miles, in nineteen hours. He let himself out some seventeen or eighteen years ago upon Mr. Colfax and party and, upon one occasion, drove them forty-five miles in three hours and a half. As a judge of the ambrosial decoction known as punch, Baldy was a success.
The son of Nimshi never found himself in greater ecstasies of glory than has Baldy upon a fine spring morning, with his six-horse team of grays, and a gang of good fellows to draw, and a start from Virginia City promptly on time.
I was one of nine persons who took passage with Baldy Greene in May 1867 from Virginia City to Austin. We arrived at a place called Big Ned’s, seventy-five miles from Virginia, about three o’clock in the afternoon, almost an hour and a half ahead of time. I shall never forget Big Ned — poor fellow! He’s dead now; his own benzene was too much for him. Big Ned was the postmaster, sheriff, restaurant keeper, Indian trader, real estate dealer, lawyer, and justice of the peace.
We arrived just in time to see him officiate in his capacity of justice of the peace. Ah Ching and Hong Sam, two young Celestials, were to be married in “Melican ” style. Baldy Greene was invited to act as master of the ceremonies, a position he cordially accepted at once. The intention of the almond-eyed groom was to have been married upon the Saturday following; but Baldy advised him that the certificate was only good for one day, and, as it cost “fifteen dolla,” Ah Ching thought it best to go on with the ceremony. I may add that the purchase of the certificate was because “John ” was not posted in the “Melican ” custom and had employed counsel to get it for him. A couple of Shoshone Indians stood up with the Celestials to impart additional mock solemnity to the ceremony. Big Ned, immediately after titillating his thorax with a glass of torch-light-procession whiskey, said, addressing himself to the groom:
“Wilt thou take this woman to be thy wedded wife and to — ”
“Yes; me take-ee him, me keep-ee him, me – ”
“Well, take-ee him, and be gone! ” roared Big Ned, in the very agony of indignation. John was then persuaded that all those who officiated in the ceremony should kiss the bride, during which he remarked, “Melican man no good; him too much-ee good look-ee.”
The ceremony concluded with chopsticks, rice, and “China blandy.”
I have stated that Big Ned was sheriff. At that time, he had two prisoners in charge. Glancing about the premises, and discovering no proper place of incarceration, and learning that the aforesaid sheriff made it a rule of his daily routine never to go to bed sober, I asked him what he did with his prisoners at night. “Oh.” he replied, “I just give them a couple of drinks each of my whiskey, and they can’t get away.”
An hour before sunset, crack went the whip, and we rolled across the Akali plains and into a deep cañon. The splendor of a mountain sunset in the wilds of Nevada, says some delightful writer, is almost without comparison. The lingering sun floods all the west with fire, hanging with golden fringes in each passing cloud, and sheds a scarlet hue on all the varied outlines of mountain, hill, and butte. The gathering twilight, spreading her veil over the desert below, shuts from view all minor objects, and long before the expiring day is gone, one can only trace in the east the dark forms of its mountain outlines and the darker gorges of the cañons beneath. Then follows the magnificence of a moonlight night in these corrugated hills and mountains, the effect of light and shade upon a clear, cloudless evening being incomparably beautiful. On the crests of the mountains, thousands of feet in the air, the dark tops of whose trees seem tangled in a braid of light, roll a silver flood, while below all is inky night.
At the bottom of the deep cañons, the gurgling stream meanders its rocky bed between mingled light and shade. The spectacle in the woods, wherefrom tree to tree run girandoles of icicles — sparkling gems of winter’s casket — beggars description. Their branches look like the arms of a constellated luster and, by moonlight, transmit a wilderness of dancing colors from the faucets of their prisms. Every shadow seems sentient, reaching out as if with instinct to touch the margin of the moonlight’s silver line. There is something impressive in the silence of the night. All nature sinks to rest the moon, Madonna of her sweet repose sails off the coast of night, and all is still saved when the wood, swayed by the timid breeze, seems whispering back in plaintive answer to the bubbling stream.
I shall never forget the beautiful sunset on this particular evening. In the dim distance were the grand old Sierra Nevada mountains, lifting their imperishable snow-capped heads to the kissing heavens, which were brilliantly beaming through dissolving clusters of kaleidoscopic clouds. The great orb was just dipping behind their summits, upon which the glittering objects of ice and snow seemed like silver fantoccini. The thin, translucent clouds assumed the most exquisite changes of shapes and colors. First, they looked like a vast arc of liquid fire and then broke into ragged and fantastic transformations with thrice the colors of the rainbow. The slanting rays of the great planet streaked everything with the glitter of gold; fragmentary sections of fleecy clouds darted off in a thousand tiny directions, diffused with misty blue and purple-edged and floated off into the thin darkness that was spreading its network of night. The picture below was not without its effect. Seemingly at the base of the detached ranges and dotting the landscape wherever the eye might wander were the sinks of the Carson and the Humboldt, looking like miniature lakes of burnished silver as they twinkled in the rays of the parting sun.
I have often been struck with the strange and unexpected characters to be met with while traveling over these long-stage routes on the Pacific Coast. At a well-known station called Big Meadows, where we arrived about ten o’clock, I encountered one of the pleasantest adventures of my life. Anxious to stretch my legs and enjoy a near approach to a sparkling fire that sent its light through the chinks of the cabin, inviting the weary traveler to its comforting influence, I entered the premises and seated myself upon a stool near the hearth. Glancing at the interior, I discovered a table nearby, covered well with books. Opening one, I found Caesar’s Commentaries. Surprised to find such a book in such a place, so far removed from academic shades, I hastily turned to the flyleaf and found there, in a neat running hand, the name of the owner. Looking further at the collection, I discovered the works of the immortal Shakespeare, the Life of Franklin, Milton’s Paradise Lost, a copy of Tom Moore, and last, but first in importance, a Bible!
It at once occurred to me that these books had been left by some weary pilgrim desirous of lessening his burdens in his Occidental wanderings, and I was beginning to speculate upon his history when the hostler, who was quite a youth, entered and announced that the stage was nearly ready. Resolved upon the penetration of this delightful mystery, this treasure in the wilds of the great interior desert, I asked the young man who owned the books. He modestly said, “They belong to me,” and in reply to my rapid questions, he informed me that he was a graduate of a college in Indiana; that, seeking his fortune, he had come to the far West, met disappointment, as thousands had before him; and that, and with no better offers, he determined to earn his own living and to keep his misfortunes from the ears of his parents, he had accepted the humble place of hostler to the stage line. He was cheerful and hopeful, and the keen glance of his gray eyes and the eloquent compression of his finely chiseled lips gave all the assurance that success with him was only a matter of time.
What a charming lesson for the curled darlings of languishing ease, raised and existing in luxury and idleness without a thought beyond the glittering fashions and follies of the day. Here was manhood, stern courage, calm determination to conquer fate and destiny, a future full of moments to society and renowned for its possessor. It will not surprise me to meet this boy hereafter in an exalted position. Of such stern stuff are most of our great men made, and many of the noted men of the Pacific Coast have risen from such humble positions.
But to the night’s adventure: As I have remarked above, there were nine of us: seven inside and two with the driver. Upon the front seat were a Frenchman named Lamoreux and Ashley, an Ex-Member of Congress from Nevada. On the middle seat were two army officers and a German. The back seat was occupied by myself and a man named Siebler, one of the discoverers of the Belmont mines, the largest of which had just been sold to a New York company for a million dollars; Horace H. Day and others have been the purchasers. Like Comstock, who once owned the great lode that perpetuates his name and yielded hundreds of millions of dollars, Siebler was a poor prospector and parted with his share of the claim for less than a song. The discovery of this section, ninety miles from Austin, was made by four men — Siebler, Billman, Straight, and Smith — in October 1865. Immediately, according to law, the four persons named above located their claims and subsequently took possession of what is now known as the Highbridge lode.
Shortly after, Siebler sold out his claim to his companions for $200 in currency, and in a few months after that, Smith, Billman, and Straight sold out their entire interest to the Combination Company for $40,000. Before this transfer, Straight, who was the deputy recorder at the time, attempted to defraud his companions and get the whole interest into his own hands. He, therefore, destroyed the records establishing the true ownership and, in some other book, recorded the claim as belonging entirely to himself. The forgery was so apparent that Straight was immediately arrested and taken to Austin. Here, he confessed the deed he had committed and was allowed to escape the law, and subsequently received $10,000 as his share of the pay. Mortified at the discovery of the base attempt on his part to commit a stupendous swindle, Straight departed for the East shortly after and has not since been heard of. Smith and Billman also went East to spend their money. Siebler, who sold out for $200, snored soundly by my side. Once, he essayed a song and might have kept up his dismal serenade, possibly for some minutes, had I not hit upon the novel method of falling heavily against him at the first chuck-hole, which jammed all of his infernal melodies out of him and closed him up for several hours.
While half a dozen desperate highwaymen, each armed with a couple of six-shooters and completely masked, were awaiting the arrival of the stage at a proposed place of action, most of the party inside were journeying in dreamland. I dreamed I was comfortably at home until the exclamations, “Halt. Stop that stage!” “Throw out those express boxes!” caught my ears, and I then well knew that, instead of being in San Francisco, I was out on one of the great deserts of Nevada and at the mercy of the knights of the road.
We were all awake in an instant. We knew the cause of the alarm; we knew we were in the hands of the “road agents.” Some of us had been there before.
“Driver! ” ejaculated the robber-in-chief, a tall, well-masked fellow, “mind you, take good care of that team, and don’t move an inch until I give you orders.”
“All right,” said Baldy, and, addressing himself to his off leader, “Behave yourself, Clara; behave yourself; tut, tut, tut. Clara! Behave yourself; these gentlemen won’t hurt you, darling (in a low voice), but they’ll make it uncomfortable for my passengers.
“For God’s sake, can’t you keep those horses quiet ? “roared the gang leader; ” Now, you man up there with the driver, throw down those express boxes, and be very lively about it, too! ”
The man threw down the express boxes as if he had been an adept in the business.
“No. 2! ” shouted the chief to one of his accomplices, “you watch the horses; No. 3, go round to the other door; No. 4, stand here with me; Nos. 5 and 6, cover the rear. Get down here, you two men on the outside. No. 2, search them for arms. Hold up your hands, gentlemen, and let this fellow see if you have any weapons. We will not hurt you, but we do not propose to take any chance of getting our own brains blown out for a few paltry twenty-dollar pieces.”
A few seconds have covered this whole performance so far. The rascals surprised us round a curve, and in the twinkling of an eye, we were surrounded, and a dozen six-shooters were leveled at our heads. The outsiders were unarmed and taken to the rear of the stage and placed one behind the other. Then Ashley, who understood the situation perfectly well, was ordered out. He had parted with his last ducat the night before at the intellectual game of “pitch seven-up ” and was a picture of composure. Then, the poor Frenchman, who hesitated in his movements, was jerked out and placed in the rear of Ashley. I was the last passenger called for. I was searched for arms, taken to the rear, and placed behind Siebler.
The moon looked down upon a party of nine gentlemen, with their hands up in the air, covered well by cocked revolvers and willing to go peaceably home.
“Now, gentlemen, I’ll relieve you of your loose change,” urbanely remarked the captain of the crowd, and down went his delicate hand into my breeches pocket, and up came seven twenty-dollar gold pieces. He went into my other pockets and examined me closely to see if I wore a belt. He also amused himself by taking my watch and chain and then passed to Siebler, who denominated a poor cuss, adding, “Why, you haven’t got the price of a drink, have you? Here, I’ll lend you two-and-a-half, and you can repay it to your friend in the rear.” Siebler never returned the aforesaid coin, however.
In searching for the two army officers, several hundred dollars in currency was captured. Then came the Dutchman’s turn, who, upon the captain’s approach, left his place in the line exclaiming, “Vat der teufel for dis peessiness? I don’t oondurstand dose dings.”
“Do you understand that?” said No. 4, placing the muzzle of his pistol near the ear of the enraged Teuton, and snapping a cap.
“No!” he replied, savagely; “mein Gott in Himmel, I don’t oondustand dese toings;” at the same time knocking the pistol aside with one hand, and quietly tucking a handful of small gold into his bootleg.
“That’s played out, my boy,” said No. 1, who was keenly watching the operation; “take that bullion out of your boot, or I’ll leave you here for the crows.”
Rather than be transformed into food for unclean birds, Mr. Francis Seibler transferred the deposit from his bootleg to the capacious pocket of the captain.
Mr. Lamoreux, the Frenchman, was next ransacked and relieved of over $2,000, which he carried in a belt, in $20 gold pieces. However, he saved more than that amount in greenbacks by cutting a hole in his pocket with his penknife and letting it and his paper money fall into his boot.
Not a dime was realized from Mr. Ashley, notwithstanding the most careful manipulation of that gentleman’s pockets. His funds had gone, as Jim Fisk would have happily remarked, “where the woodbine twineth.”
The next gentleman saved his money by putting it upon his hat, while Mr. Simons, the person who threw out the Wells-Fargo express matter, quietly dropped a wallet containing $10,000 in currency into the front boot of the stage.
The robbers then searched the vehicle, but finding nothing that they deemed valuable, the captain shouted, “Get your seats now, and be off, and be particularly careful not to return!” In a few moments, we were ” all set” to use a stage expression, and our journey to Austin was resumed.
These feats of highwaymanship are frequent upon the Pacific slope, even up to the present time. California, Oregon, Arizona, and Nevada have many long stage routes, over which travel some of the richest men of the far West. The treasure boxes of Wells Fargo & Co.’s express are the principal incentive of these raids of bandits; however, hundreds of thousands of dollars in bars of gold and silver are transported from the mines all over the Pacific States and Territories in this way.
While almost every traveler goes armed in these sections of the sparsely inhabited country, there is hardly an exception to the general rule of yielding gracefully to the demands of these “road agents.” They always manage to take you unawares, and as quick as thought, almost, you find yourself surrounded by half a dozen desperadoes, more or less, your every action being dictated by a six-shooter in close proximity to your head.
During the White Pine excitement, hundreds of thousands of dollars were forcibly taken from travelers and the express companies. During the past twenty years, stages from Salt Lake City to Helena, Montana, have been successfully robbed scores of times; so, also has the stage from Placerville and Sacramento, California, to Virginia City, Nevada, and the Washoe silver mines. Fourteen years ago, three stages were robbed within four miles of Virginia City by ten masked men, nearly forty passengers being relieved of their valuables. The Los Angeles and San Francisco stage was stopped 12 years ago by four highwaymen, only a mile and a half from the former town. In this case, the robbers were afterward captured, and one of them, turning State’s evidence, convicted the other three, who were sent to the penitentiary for 15 years. Charlie Ames, the chief, when the sentence was passed upon him, remarked to the sheriff that he would like to play a game of “old sledge” with the judge (Honorable A. J. King) whether he should make it thirty years or nothing.
About the Author: Major Benjamin Cummings Truman was an American journalist and author who had a role as a distinguished war correspondent for the New York Times during the Civil War. A Midnight Adventure in Nevada was included in Truman’s book Occidental Sketches, published by the San Francisco News Co. in 1881. The article as it appear here is not verbatim as it has been edited for the modern reader.