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Plummer scarcely resembled the model sheriffs of movie and television westerns. Coolly calculating, he used his position as sheriff of Bannack during Montana Territory’s first gold rush to organize a band of road agents who systematically robbed and murdered miners in remote areas. The highwaymen became so brazen that the miners felt compelled to band together and wage a vigorous lynch-law campaign to restore order. In 1864 these vigilantes caught up with Plummer and delivered their own brand of justice.
"An engaging, 80-year-old western epic."—Booklist
Two hours after the sun had set on a May day in the early sixties,the Walla Walla stagecoach reached the Snake River. Shadows werecreeping out of the willows that grew on the banks of the stream,and as though fearful of them, the driver popped the long lash of hiswhip over the ears of the leaders to urge them on toward the journey'send. The coach, rocking on its leather thorough-brace, chuckedand joggled over the rutty road and tossed the passengers about uncomfortably.
"Most there now, lady," said a voice in the growing dusk of thecoach.
"I am so very thankful." It was a young woman who answeredsoftly above the rattle of the wheels. "Not that the journey has beenat all unpleasant. Indeed, everybody has been so considerate of mywelfare I feel as though I have been a nuisance," she added, as if inapology for her presence in so rough a country.
"A good woman—a lady—is never in nobody's way," said the man.
The flush which spread over her face was hidden in the dusk, andthe man continued, "We can tell 'em. They're so different from theothers; and they're scarce enough here, God knows. Beggin' yourpardon ... there's Lewiston!" The coach had rounded a sharp turnand was crossing the river when more than two thousand lightedtents burst into view.
In the soft night air of spring, and under the sky of lowered cloudsthat threatened showers of rain, they resembled strings of giant Japaneselanterns hung by magic in the land of dreams. They winkedand flickered in groupswhile, a little apart from the conventionalmultitude, like bawds in a ballroom, larger, brighter tents glowed inthe darkness, extending their welcome to the tired passengers in thecoach, as did the more fraternal strings that reached merrily to theoutermost parts of the town.
"Oh, how enchanting, Henry," whispered the young woman tothe young man beside her.
"Yes, it's pretty enough," he answered indifferently. Then, asthough he had felt her shrink at his lack of enthusiasm, he added,"I'm glad we're here. I'm tired."
She pressed his hand secretly. "I, too, am tired, Henry," she whisperedappealingly. And then, startled by the welcoming shouts andshots as the stage swung in between the long rows of lighted tents,she clutched his arm. "Ah, here we are," she said. She winced at thesharp cracks of the driver's whip and the reports of six-shooters whichannounced the arrival of the coach in the main street. Up the street itdashed amid cheering citizens, seemingly all men, dressed in slouchhats and red or blue flannel shirts, and with trousers tucked intoheavy boots.
Flimsy dance halls where dancers whirled to loud music, theirshadowy forms showing plainly through the cotton walls, flashedby the passengers in the coach, and now and then a log buildingstanding darkly among its neighbors with an air of greater substantiality.Men called their greetings to the driver. Bits of conversation,cut short by the speed of the coach, flung themselves at the passengersunder its canvas cover. "Look at him!" cried a man astride aboney horse as the stage swung up and stopped at the Palace Hotel."Gimme a hundred! Ain't a blemish on him. Gimme a hundred!" hewent on, literally carried away by the crowd, for the street was packedwith men and, like an ant hill, seemed to move with life.
"Good night, lady; good night, sir," said the other passengers asthe young couple alighted from the coach before it should whirl awayto the express office just beyond. The young woman bowed pleasantlyand, mindful of their kindness and respect, waved her hand.Then, holding her palm upward, she laughed lightly, but as if withdetermination. "Why, Henry, it's sprinkling. Do they have electricalstorms here, I wonder?"
He did not reply but, stooping, gathered up their two carpetbagsand turned to the doorway, where the bowing clerk stood ready totake them from his hands. "I'll show you to your room, sir" he said."Supper's all ready. You'll want to wash up. But it's nearly closingtime," he added, his pudgy, perfumed form shuffling down the hallwayover the flimsy, creaking floor to a door which he threw open.There, setting the bags just inside as though glad to be relieved oftheir weight, he struck a match and lighted a candle on the bureau,lingering to admire his black hair plastered low on his forehead andshining with oil. "Number nine sir," he said. "I'll hold places foryou in the dining room." And he turned a moment at the door andbowed.
"We shall require but a moment," said the young woman, beginningto remove the veil which she wore pinned over a modish bonnet.
Then, while the clerk's footsteps creaked back along the hallwayand she folded the veil, her eyes scanned the bare, unpapered wallsand the single window. "It's very close in here, Henry," she sighed,removing her bonnet.
He strode to the window and threw up the sash, propping it witha stick that was on the sill for the purpose. "Get ready for supper,"he said coldly.
After perhaps ten minutes, they entered the dining room, a long,narrow hall with bare log walls, windowed only on one side, andwith but two doors, one opening into the office, the other into thekitchen. Its ceiling was very low, not over seven feet, and was, inreality, merely the rough board floor of rooms above that was supportedby round, peeled logs crosswise of the dining hall. The roomsabove were occupied. The tread of heavy cowhide boots on theboards so near the young woman's head was disconcerting, but onlyfor a moment. After a half-startled upward glance, she smiled amusedlyand her hand sought the young man's arm. A Chinaman wasserving a dozen men scattered at the several tables in the light of tallowcandles, and as the new guests entered every eye in the roomturned toward them. They were a striking pair. The same young manwho had been at the door as the stage drove in studied them intently,as if trying to place them.
The woman, alone, would have appeared to be considerably abovethe average height of women, but with her escort did not seem tobe overly tall. She was dressed in a traveling dress of stone-coloredmerino ornamented with blue silk and black velvet, with a wide-sweepingskirt and a close-fitting bodice, and she moved with perfectgrace across the room. As she smiled acknowledgement of his courtesyin seating her, her large blue eyes swept the room, and althoughthe glance appeared casual, it somehow left every man with the uncomfortablefeeling that he had been appraised.
Her escort was nearly six feet tall, fair, and as straight as an Indian.He was slender, even delicate, moving with a swift grace that so oftencharacterizes people born to place and influence. He had a firmmouth that was finely cut and a chin that was strong and suggestiveof daring. His slender shapely hands, white and almost as softas those of a woman, were quick and sure in their movements, asthough nature had fashioned them for some peculiar deftness.
A thoughtful person might have observed that his clear gray eyeswere not only inscrutable but steely cold, and the attractive womanby his side strove with her charm to soften them. But if she had everpossessed the power to set those eyes aglow with passion it was nowhopelessly lost, for while searching and seeing all with comprehension,they never changed their expression of heedless indifference—neveroffered her a morsel of devotion, though he attended her withstudied courtesy. His voice, in addressing her, was not unpleasant,but pitched in a low monotone that in a long continued conversationmight prove tiresome. One would not, at least at first, have associatedthe man with his voice. Moreover, his hair was out of keepingwith his otherwise neat person and correct appearance. It was badlydishevelled and fell over his forehead in a rumpled pile. Still, he washandsome, and in spite of the fact that he was evidently but a boyin years, there was that about him which commanded attention andheld it.
As soon as these late guests were served, the Chinaman closedand bolted the door. As one by one the patrons left their places atthe tables, he followed to let them out and to prevent others fromcoming in.
Alone, even the desultory conversation that had been maintainedin the presence of others ended, and the handsome pair finished theirmeal in silence. At last they also rose, the shuffling Chinaman accompanyingthem to the door and saying "Goo'-bye" as he closed itbehind them.
"I'm likely to be out late," said the young man when they wereback in their room, and picking up his black slouch hat from the bed,he crossed to the window and closed it against the damp west windthat stirred the crumpled curtain.
She shifted the candlestick on the bureau. "The fresh air smellsgood," she said, guarding her voice against a tone of disappointment."Of course, I shan't mind your going out if you need to go, Henry.If I feel lonesome, I shall sleep."
He offered her no explanation. Deftly brushing back the tumbledlock of hair from his forehead, he put on his hat, pulling the widebrim down well over his eyes. Striding back along the hallway to theoffice, with a nod to the clerk, he went out of doors.
"Who is that fellow, Billy?" a miner asked of the hotel clerk.
"I don't know," the clerk replied. "He came in on the coach. Hisname's Plummer. That's all I know."
"Salt Lake City, hey?" muttered the other, peering at the register."Further east, further cast, I bet."
Leaving the hotel, Henry Plummer turned down the main street ofLewiston, which, despite the pitchy darkness and gently falling rain,was crowded with roughly garbed miners and prospectors from thehills. Here, indeed, was a new country, a new mining country; andas a wolf's blood is quickened at sight of his quarry so Henry Plummer'sstirred with the thought. But there was no hint of his mind'swork in his eyes under the dark hat brim, as his tall figure clad in fashionableclothes—dark frock coat, fancy brocaded vest, and gray trousersover well-polished boots—picked its way with quick, springysteps to the far end of the street. There he turned and, crossing over,came more than halfway back on the other side, his eyes measuringeach lighted tent wherein there was gaming until he reached theCombination Gambling House, at the door of which he turned in.
The Combination was the most pretentious of all gamblinghouses in Lewiston, its sturdy log walls reaching fifteen feet from afloor of fifty by seventy feet. There was no ceiling, and, under thepole rafters set thick beneath a steep-pitched shake roof, the smokefrom scores of cigars and pipes hung like a gray cloud throughout theyear. On the right of the front door, leaving but a narrow passagewaybetween it and the building's end, was a long bar, behind whichthree and at times six bartenders waited on the patrons who stoodbefore it or sat at the many card tables in the room. Three faro layouts,always attracting crowds of players, occupied spaces near thewall on the opposite side from the bar, the chairs of their dealers andlookouts touching the hewed logs. The remaining floor space wasplentifully furnished with fixed round tables and accompanying hickorychairs arranged so that a passageway reached from up near thefront to the back of the room.
The place was always well patronized. Tonight, perhaps becauseof the rain, every chair was occupied, every table full. Men stood fourand even six deep about the faro layouts, watching the deals and theluck of the men at play. Now and then an onlooker, who with neckcraned from the outermost row had been anxiously following theturn of the cards, would cry, "Hold the deal!" and, elbowing his wayto the layout, glance quickly at the cases there to reassure himself,then make a bet. "All down?" the dealer would ask disinterestedly,and again the deal would go on.
Now there was no disorder, no conversation, save an occasionalshort comment on the run of the cards. The games held every mantense, anxious, expectant; and many were perspiring, though theroom was not warm. The dealers seldom spoke, but quickly andsurely paid bets or deftly swept chips, money or gold dust to themselvesas winnings. They were marvels of speed and efficiency. Eventhough layouts were strewn with bets great and small, some cardsplayed to win, others to lose, and still others to win and lose, theymade no mistakes, gave no man cause for complaint. Seated a littleabove them, the lookouts, with faces like graven images, never tooktheir eyes from the game. Witnesses they were, and not a play escapedtheir studied notice, no bet but what they knew, though theircountenances remained as expressionless and vacant as those of theSphinx of old Egypt, and as hard—like the fates themselves whowatch men's lives with seemingly cold indifference. Good and badluck as evidenced in the games before them provoked neither smilenor frown; though they firmly believed in both goddesses, worshipingone and fearing the other with a wholeheartedness that wouldhave shamed the superstitious Indian.
Stopping at the bar, Henry Plummer bought cigars and, lightingone, stood for a moment watching the scene with deep satisfaction.The constant clicking of chips and the hum and babble of voicesabout the card tables were music to him. When at last a man arosefrom a chair at a table well back in the room, he at once began tomove towards the vacant seat, slipping through the crowd of watcherswith the ease of one well accustomed to such places and theirpatrons. Slowly, and as opportunity offered a way through the jam,he approached the table at which four men were playing poker andfrom a vantage point near the vacant chair began to watch the game,intently and in silence.
Excerpted from Henry Plummer by FRANK BIRD LINDERMAN. Copyright © 2000 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted September 26, 2004
I would recommend reading Montana Adventure by Frank B. Linderman. Then you will know the reasons for his extended knowledge and personal touch to Henry Plummer. Read all of his books.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.