Really and truly, two thirds of the talk of drivers and conductors had been about this man Slade, ever since the day before we reached Julesburg.
In order that the eastern reader may have a clear conception of what a Rocky Mountain desperado is, in his highest state of development, I will reduce all this mass of overland gossip to one straightforward narrative, and present it in the following shape: Slade was born in Illinois, of good parentage.
At about twenty-six years of age he killed a man in a quarrel and fled the country.
At St. Joseph, Missouri, he joined one of the early California-bound emigrant trains, and was given the post of train-master.
One day on the plains he had an angry dispute with one of his wagon-drivers, and both drew their revolvers.
But the driver was the quicker artist, and had his weapon cocked first.
So Slade said it was a pity to waste life on so small a matter, and proposed that the pistols be thrown on the ground and the quarrel settled by a fist-fight.
The unsuspecting driver agreed, and threw down his pistol--whereupon Slade laughed at his simplicity, and shot him dead! He made his escape, and lived a wild life for awhile, dividing his time between fighting Indians and avoiding an Illinois sheriff, who had been sent to arrest him for his first murder.
It is said that in one Indian battle he killed three savages with his own hand, and afterward cut their ears off and sent them, with his compliments, to the chief of the tribe. Slade soon gained a name for fearless resolution, and this was sufficient merit to procure for him the important post of overland division-agent at Julesburg, in place of Mr. Jules, removed.
For some time previously, the company's horses had been frequently stolen, and the coaches delayed, by gangs of outlaws, who were wont to laugh at the idea of any man's having the temerity to resent such outrages.
Slade resented them promptly. The outlaws soon found that the new agent was a man who did not fear anything that breathed the breath of life.
He made short work of all offenders.
The result was that delays ceased, the company's property was let alone, and no matter what happened or who suffered, Slade's coaches went through, every time!
True, in order to bring about this wholesome change, Slade had to kill several men--some say three, others say four, and others six--but the world was the richer for their loss.
The first prominent difficulty he had was with the ex-agent Jules, who bore the reputation of being a reckless and desperate man himself.
Jules hated Slade for supplanting him, and a good fair occasion for a fight was all he was waiting for.
By and by Slade dared to employ a man whom Jules had once discharged.
Next, Slade seized a team of stage-horses which he accused Jules of having driven off and hidden somewhere for his own use. War was declared, and for a day or two the two men walked warily about the streets, seeking each other, Jules armed with a double-barreled shot gun, and Slade with his history-creating revolver.
Finally, as Slade stepped into a store Jules poured the contents of his gun into him from behind the door.
Slade was plucky, and Jules got several bad pistol wounds in return. Then both men fell, and were carried to their respective lodgings, both swearing that better aim should do deadlier work next time.
Both were bedridden a long time, but Jules got to his feet first, and gathering his possessions together, packed them on a couple of mules, and fled to the Rocky Mountains to gather strength in safety against the day of reckoning.
For many months he was not seen or heard of, and was gradually dropped out of the remembrance of all save Slade himself.
But Slade was not the man to forget him.
On the contrary, common report said that Slade kept a reward standing for his capture, dead or alive! After awhile, seeing that Slade's energetic administration had restored peace and order to one of the worst divisions of the road, the overland stage company transferred him to the Rocky Ridge division in the Rocky Mountains, to see if he could perform a like miracle there.
It was the very paradise of outlaws and desperadoes.
There was absolutely no semblance of law there.
Violence was the rule.
Force was the only recognized authority.
The commonest misunderstandings were settled on the spot with the revolver or the knife.
Murders were done in open day, and with sparkling frequency, and nobody thought of inquiring into them. It was considered that the parties who did the killing had their private reasons for it; for other people to meddle would have been looked upon as indelicate.
After a murder, all that Rocky Mountain etiquette required of a spectator was, that he should help the gentleman bury his game-- otherwise his churlishness would surely be remembered against him the first time he killed a man himself and needed a neighborly turn in interring him. Slade took up his residence sweetly and peacefully in the midst of this hive of horse-thieves and assassins, and the very first time one of them aired his insolent swaggerings in his presence he shot him dead!
He began a raid on the outlaws, and in a singularly short space of time he had completely stopped their depredations on the stage stock, recovered a large number of stolen horses, killed several of the worst desperadoes of the district, and gained such a dread ascendancy over the rest that they respected him, admired him, feared him, obeyed him!
He wrought the same marvelous change in the ways of the community that had marked his administration at Overland City.
He captured two men who had stolen overland stock, and with his own hands he hanged them.
He was supreme judge in his district, and he was jury and executioner likewise--and not only in the case of offences against his employers, but against passing emigrants as well.
On one occasion some emigrants had their stock lost or stolen, and told Slade, who chanced to visit their camp.
With a single companion he rode to a ranch, the owners of which he suspected, and opening the door, commenced firing, killing three, and wounding the fourth. From a bloodthirstily interesting little Montana book.--["The Vigilantes of Montana," by Prof. Thos. J. Dimsdale.]--I take this paragraph:
"While on the road, Slade held absolute sway.
He would ride down to
a station, get into a quarrel, turn the house out of windows, and
maltreat the occupants most cruelly.
The unfortunates had no means
of redress, and were compelled to recuperate as best they could." On one of these occasions, it is said he killed the father of the fine little half-breed boy Jemmy, whom he adopted, and who lived with his widow after his execution.
Stories of Slade's hanging men, and of innumerable assaults, shootings, stabbings and beatings, in which he was a principal actor, form part of the legends of the stage line.
As for minor quarrels and shootings, it is absolutely certain that a minute history of Slade's life would be one long record of such practices. Slade was a matchless marksman with a navy revolver.
The legends say that one morning at Rocky Ridge, when he was feeling comfortable, he saw a man approaching who had offended him some days before--observe the fine memory he had for matters like that--and, "Gentlemen," said Slade, drawing, "it is a good twenty-yard shot--I'll clip the third button on his coat!"
Which he did.
The bystanders all admired it.
And they all attended the funeral, too. On one occasion a man who kept a little whisky-shelf at the station did something which angered Slade--and went and made his will.
A day or two afterward Slade came in and called for some brandy.
The man reached under the counter (ostensibly to get a bottle--possibly to get something else), but Slade smiled upon him that peculiarly bland and satisfied smile of his which the neighbors had long ago learned to recognize as a death-warrant in disguise, and told him to "none of that!--pass out the high-priced article."
So the poor bar-keeper had to turn his back and get the high-priced brandy from the shelf; and when he faced around again he was looking into the muzzle of Slade's pistol.
"And the next instant," added my informant, impressively, "he was one of the deadest men that ever lived." The stage-drivers and conductors told us that sometimes Slade would leave a hated enemy wholly unmolested, unnoticed and unmentioned, for weeks together--had done it once or twice at any rate.
And some said they believed he did it in order to lull the victims into unwatchfulness, so that he could get the advantage of them, and others said they believed he saved up an enemy that way, just as a schoolboy saves up a cake, and made the pleasure go as far as it would by gloating over the anticipation. One of these cases was that of a Frenchman who had offended Slade. To the surprise of everybody Slade did not kill him on the spot, but let him alone for a considerable time.
Finally, however, he went to the Frenchman's house very late one night, knocked, and when his enemy opened the door, shot him dead--pushed the corpse inside the door with his foot, set the house on fire and burned up the dead man, his widow and three children!
I heard this story from several different people, and they evidently believed what they were saying.
It may be true, and it may not.
"Give a dog a bad name," etc. Slade was captured, once, by a party of men who intended to lynch him. They disarmed him, and shut him up in a strong log-house, and placed a guard over him.
He prevailed on his captors to send for his wife, so that he might have a last interview with her.
She was a brave, loving, spirited woman.
She jumped on a horse and rode for life and death. When she arrived they let her in without searching her, and before the door could be closed she whipped out a couple of revolvers, and she and her lord marched forth defying the party.
And then, under a brisk fire, they mounted double and galloped away unharmed! In the fulness of time Slade's myrmidons captured his ancient enemy Jules, whom they found in a well-chosen hiding-place in the remote fastnesses of the mountains, gaining a precarious livelihood with his rifle.
They brought him to Rocky Ridge, bound hand and foot, and deposited him in the middle of the cattle-yard with his back against a post.
It is said that the pleasure that lit Slade's face when he heard of it was something fearful to contemplate.
He examined his enemy to see that he was securely tied, and then went to bed, content to wait till morning before enjoying the luxury of killing him.
Jules spent the night in the cattle-yard, and it is a region where warm nights are never known. In the morning Slade practised on him with his revolver, nipping the flesh here and there, and occasionally clipping off a finger, while Jules begged him to kill him outright and put him out of his misery.
Finally Slade reloaded, and walking up close to his victim, made some characteristic remarks and then dispatched him.
The body lay there half a day, nobody venturing to touch it without orders, and then Slade detailed a party and assisted at the burial himself.
But he first cut off the dead man's ears and put them in his vest pocket, where he carried them for some time with great satisfaction.
That is the story as I have frequently heard it told and seen it in print in California newspapers. It is doubtless correct in all essential particulars. In due time we rattled up to a stage-station, and sat down to breakfast with a half-savage, half-civilized company of armed and bearded mountaineers, ranchmen and station employees.
The most gentlemanly- appearing, quiet and affable officer we had yet found along the road in the Overland Company's service was the person who sat at the head of the table, at my elbow.
Never youth stared and shivered as I did when I heard them call him SLADE! Here was romance, and I sitting face to face with it!--looking upon it-- touching it--hobnobbing with it, as it were!
Here, right by my side, was the actual ogre who, in fights and brawls and various ways, had taken the lives of twenty-six human beings, or all men lied about him!
I suppose I was the proudest stripling that ever traveled to see strange lands and wonderful people. He was so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history.
It was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody- bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with. And to this day I can remember nothing remarkable about Slade except that his face was rather broad across the cheek bones, and that the cheek bones were low and the lips peculiarly thin and straight.
But that was enough to leave something of an effect upon me, for since then I seldom see a face possessing those characteristics without fancying that the owner of it is a dangerous man. The coffee ran out.
At least it was reduced to one tin-cupful, and Slade was about to take it when he saw that my cup was empty. He politely offered to fill it, but although I wanted it, I politely declined.
I was afraid he had not killed anybody that morning, and might be needing diversion.
But still with firm politeness he insisted on filling my cup, and said I had traveled all night and better deserved it than he--and while he talked he placidly poured the fluid, to the last drop.
I thanked him and drank it, but it gave me no comfort, for I could not feel sure that he would not be sorry, presently, that he had given it away, and proceed to kill me to distract his thoughts from the loss. But nothing of the kind occurred.
We left him with only twenty-six dead people to account for, and I felt a tranquil satisfaction in the thought that in so judiciously taking care of No. 1 at that breakfast-table I had pleasantly escaped being No. 27.
Slade came out to the coach and saw us off, first ordering certain rearrangements of the mail-bags for our comfort, and then we took leave of him, satisfied that we should hear of him again, some day, and wondering in what connection.