Triggerfingeritis – The Old West Gunman


By Edgar Beecher Bronson in 1910




Triggerfingeritis is an acute irritation of the sensory nerves of the index finger of habitual gun-packers; usually fatal — to someone.

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.

Boone May

Boone May

Of the supporters of the law in that period Boone May was one of the finest examples any frontier community ever boasted. 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.

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.

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