Here I lay me down to sleep
to wait the coming morning
perhaps success, perhaps defeat
and everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I'll lay it on
My condition can't be worse
And if there's money in that box
'tis money in my purse.
—Black Bart the Po8
"Wadsworth Longfellow's got nothing to worry about," the Wells, Fargo agent told his partner. "Paul Revere's Ride it's not."
"He's been leaving scraps of paper with poems like this every time he robs a Wells, Fargo stage," Collins said. "He's playing with us."
Mitchell read the poem again. Maybe the words did tell him something. "'Tis money in my purse,' isn't the way any of my cellmates at Yuma ever talked."
Dave Mitchell's trail to the small diner on San Francisco's Kearney Street had been an unusual one for a trusted Wells, Fargo agent. Sixteen when he had left his father's endless farm chores behind and hired on as a trail hand with an outfit delivering a Texas herd to the new lands of Arizona, he had never looked back. Paid off in Gila River Valley, he had found he liked having money in his pockets and when another hand had told him that Wells, Fargo stages had money free-for-the-taking, he had begun to expand his world. Arizona and New Mexico in the winter months, the fresh green lands of the Colorado Mining District when things warmed up, relishing the free life, only eighteen, but certain he'd hit on the ideal life for a man bold enough to take it. Five years in Yuma as the "guest" of the government had failed to make him penitent, and he had resumed his career intending to lose no time in making up for the lost whiskey and good times that Wells, Fargo and its bloodhounds had stolen from him. Then a chance encounter—"Providence" the old Methodist preacher his parents had made him suffer through might call it—had introduced him to Chet Collins, at 5'6", the biggest man he had ever met. That encounter changed his life.
For five years, he had worked with the senior agent, tracking down Wells, Fargo robbers from Arizona to Wyoming to Idaho, and building a success record that so marked the duo as the go-to investigators that it caught the attention of the "suits" in San Francisco. After the company's agents on the ground in California had spent years failing to put an end to the scourge which had been visiting stages in the Sacramento Mining District and throughout the state with nothing to show for their efforts except scraps of doggerel, James Hume, chief of detectives, summoned Collins and Mitchell.
"There are some clues in there, Dave," Chet Collins said, "if we can only figure them out." That was Collins' way. If Mitchell's "professional" experience taught him to understand critical elements others might miss in the conduct of the robbery itself, Collins looked inside the robbers for understanding, different approaches that combined to end the careers of more than two dozen of the West's worst highwaymen.
Mitchell read slower this time, trying to get the diction, "He's got a lot of words. Sounds like he spent a spell of time learning from McGuffey's Reader."
"Frank James, the word is, always carried a set of Shakespeare plays in his saddlebags." Collins reminded Mitchell.
There wasn't much on the surface of the words to tell them who Black Bart was, or where to find him. "Don't read like a young man," Mitchell said. "Had some book learning, but it don't take a lot. Cowhands riding night herd spend a lot of lonely hours putting words together. Could be he just has a lot of time on his hands." That insight was a clue, though not one the agents recognized at the time.
* * *
At that moment, three blocks up Kearney Street at Ware's Laundry, an Irish washerwoman watched as a slim man left with his laundry package tucked under his arm. His dapper manner of dress, straight-backed carriage, his ornate cane, all combined to make him a recognizable man about town.
"Now there's a proper gentleman, is Mr. Bolton," the washerwoman said, more to the walls than to the new customer. "Always has a pleasant word and tips his derby to the ladies on the street. And with just a touch of the old country lilt to his voice."
The object of her admiration, Charles Bolton, a mining expert who described his mining interests, somewhat vaguely, as located on the California-Nevada border, dressed as befits a middle-aged man of affairs, wearing a salt-and-pepper tweed suit with a diamond stick pin and a velvet-colored overcoat, neat but not ostentatious. A well-trained silvery mustache, coupled with the tendency to gray at his temples completed a perfect picture of a moderately prosperous, distinguished middle-class man in a striving community.
Whether playing cards at the Elite Saloon on Kearney Street, or dining a few doors away where he frequently sat at the table with detectives of the San Francisco Police Department, he was popular for his witty conversation about widely separated topics and, the hallmark of a true gentleman, without inflicting on his auditors endless anecdotes of his own biography. Far more likely he would be to give a critical review of the visiting troupe's performance of Bizet's Carmen or other highlights of the cultural life of a town trying to raise itself above its provincial origins.
That evening, however, he sat alone at table, treating himself to a repast of oysters paid for by the generosity of Wells, Fargo. Not stolen money, he assured himself, money he was owed, a simple reimbursement of the damages Wells, Fargo had inflicted upon him that had devastated his Montana mining ambitions.
* * *
The American Civil War had been a great clashing of armies that transformed the United States from a collection of cultures and societies into a truly unified nation well on its way to asserting its place in the forefront of world history.
But it had been more: a platform, a testing ground, a factory if you will where men were built into something greater than their simple lives as a Michigan farmer or a Massachusetts cobbler, where their iron was refined into the steel that would transform their own lives as it became an essential resource for the conquest of a continent.
For some men, that is. For many men, perhaps. But not for all. Perhaps, seeing the wider world awakened dormant desires, perhaps it created ambitions beyond man's capabilities, or perhaps it just freed men from the obligations of family and farm. The new wave of restless, some would say shiftless, men coincided with the opening of the trans-Mississippi West with its limitless opportunities for the builders of Empire, but the same magnet drew men seeking to escape stifling responsibilities, seeking to build new lives in the expectation that riches in this new world came easily with none of the hard work required of an Illinois farmer.
To a man who had heard the cannons roar, sniffed the cordite, who had participated in the historic importance of the siege of Vicksburg, who had dealt with the life-defining urgency of combat from The Battle of Atlanta to the March to the Sea, who carried the consequences of battle as proud scars on both hip and abdomen, a man who had marched down Constitution Avenue in the Grand Reunion, the two-day celebration of the Union victory, to such a man a life of four children, a wife, and the cyclical drudgery of plowing, cultivating, and harvesting, seemed small , unworthy, confining. And when such a man had been promoted over the course of the war from private to company First Sergeant, being one more mud-stained farmer out of the thousands in Illinois did not offer the honor and respect to which he had become accustomed. To such a man, the lure of riches in the Montana gold fields, at least when read about from afar, promised the same broad canvas, the same bold colors, the same thrills of victory, and a triumph that did not vanish with the smoke of a single battle. So, it appeared to many men.
So, perhaps it appeared to Charles Boles, late of company B, 116th, Illinois Infantry Regiment, battle-hardened, wounded, his quality as a soldier testified to by his attainment of the rank of First Sergeant by war's end. That success in mining can produce both honor and riches is unarguable. But mining can also be more work than farming, its success can prove illusory, returns may prove fleeting, and failure more probable. Perhaps Wells, Fargo's actions destroyed a miner's hopes; perhaps that was simply a convenient excuse. But in any event, at some time in the 1870s, Mr. Boles disappeared.
* * *
The thick file took the agents most of the morning to read through. The "Po8" had been generous in his attention to California, not playing favorites by confining his activities to any single locality. Over twenty-five robberies, over eight years but increasing in frequency in recent years, he had conducted his "transactions" with Wells, Fargo in Siskiyou and Shasta Counties in the north, in Mendocino County on the Pacific coast, and in Sonoma County in California's central mining area, all just within the last year. He seemed ubiquitous in California, and the standard techniques of plotting the robberies on a map to find a pattern wouldn't work. But if it had been that easy, Collins and Mitchell would still be in Denver.
Mitchell looked up from the file he was reading. "Must be quite a walker. This report says he goes everywhere on foot." He looked at his partner. "Even with a head start, you'd think the local sheriff could run a walker into the ground."
"We're not in Colorado anymore," Collins said. "Did you spend much time looking out the window as we were coming through the jagged peaks of the Sierra? These hills are high and all scrunched together. Somehow the Rockies don't seem so exalted when you're already over a mile high. Even when we got down from the mountains, the country looked pretty rough on horses trying to track a man. Likely that's especially true in the mining district."
By the time they had each read the file, they knew several salient things. Black Bart was not a blood-thirsty robber. Not only had he never killed anyone, he had never so much as fired the shotgun that he carried on each robbery. He was authoritative in bearing and demeanor, "military," Collins said. His erect and commanding posture when reinforced with the persuasiveness of a double-barreled shotgun produced the alacrity with which drivers complied with his orders. He quickly adapted to Wells, Fargo's changing practices. In the early robberies "throw down the box" had been enough to get the strongbox on the road where he could open it at his leisure. When Wells, Fargo frustrated the robbers by bolting the box to the coach, Black Bart learned to bring a hatchet to break into the box.
He was always polite, interspersing his commands with an occasional "please." Never swore at the drivers or in any way demeaned them personally, not even relieving them of their money belts or watches. As to rich passengers he made himself clear. "I'm not here to rob you," he told one frightened passenger. "I only take from Wells, Fargo."
"Smart," Mitchell said. "Local folks elect Sheriffs. If no one is shot, and no one is robbed, it's never likely a sheriff will swear in a posse to go galloping around the county at taxpayer expense just to run down a robber who specializes in stealing from a corporation that has no votes."
His physical description was both clear and unhelpful. Five foot eight inches, the reports agreed. Small-boned, not husky. But there it stopped. The flour sack over his head with two eyeholes obscured anything that could go on a useful wanted poster. Was he dark or fair? Did he wear a full beard, or was he clean-shaven? For that matter, was he bald? The reports gave no information.
Still some patterns were clear Black Bart always worked alone. He came and went on foot, covering long distances with only his blanket roll and tools of the trade, his shotgun and hatchet. He had never—yet, anyway—fired his shotgun.
"Careful man," Mitchell said. "Drivers aren't paid to be heroes. But shooting a gun off can bring all sorts of trouble down on a man."
"Not a typical saloon tough of the kind we know," Collins said.
"Not by any means," Mitchell agreed.
* * *
So here I've stood while wind and rain
have set the trees a-sobbin'
and risked my life for that damned stage
that wasn't worth the robbin'.
—Black Bart, the Po8
Dave Mitchell was unsurprised to find himself at the foot of Market Street awaiting the departure of the morning boat. If there was one lodestar in all of Chet Collins' techniques as a Wells, Fargo agent, it was that a visit to the scene of a robbery was always the first step.
The report of the latest two robberies only a day apart but thirty miles cross-country with difficult terrain separating them, had come in overnight and these robberies not in the mining district where Bart usually worked, but in the coastal plain of Mendocino County north of San Francisco. "Hume tells me this is sheep-shearing season," Collins told Mitchell, "and that means a lot of cash is transported."
Perhaps the robberies were bad news to Wells, Fargo, but they were good news to Mitchell and Collins, who at last had an opportunity to move beyond digesting interview reports of drivers and investigators over the years, and to become men of action, taking their investigation out to the field where crimes were solved.
At the Wells, Fargo station at Ukiah, they requisitioned the use of two horses and rode out on the road. Following the stagecoach route south, they came to a series of switchbacks where the road climbed a ridge. Two thirds of the way up the hill Collins, reached out his arm and pointed to a large boulder around which the next switchback curved. "Robbers Rock, the driver called it."
"Hold up here a minute, Chet," Mitchell said. "On horseback, you're close to the same height as Fowler was on top of a Concord Coach. Let me go up and check out the view from the other side of the rock."
Mitchell rounded the bend in the road, down-stirruped and wound the reins around a small bush. "Man-sized, sure enough," Mitchell called back to his partner. He stepped off the road to conceal himself behind the rock. "I'm taller than Bart, and I can't see overhead."
"Or be seen," Collins replied.
Mitchell left the road and walked uphill, looking for something not there by nature's hand. "He had to wait somewhere where no stray traveler on the road would see him and sound a warning," he called to his partner, "but he still had to be able to get into position quick when he heard the stagecoach lumbering up the hill."
As Mitchell imagined himself lounging out of sight behind a convenient screen of trees, he scanned the ground for any telltale leavings. "Paper bag up here," he reported. "I see some apple cores. Looks like he brought his lunch." He squatted down and closed his eyes, focusing on what a highwayman would hear. Then he got to his feet and emerged from behind the tree.
"From here, he'd be able to step out and get the driver under his shotgun before the coach topped the grade and the driver could let the team out for a downhill run. The driver said Bart was fifteen feet from the road when he heard Bart cock the shotgun."
"That would get a man's attention."
Mitchell trudged back to where Collins waited with the horses. "Man knows his business, I'd say," Collins said.
"At least part of it." Mitchell said "there was no one riding shotgun. That's a standard tipoff that there was nothing in the box worth guarding. Even at eighteen, I'd have known enough to let the coach go on. Do we know what he got?"
"Aside from hundreds of dollars of checks he couldn't cash, all he got from the robbery was $12.50."
Mitchell laughed. "Wells, Fargo will get a bad rep among highwaymen if that's all they have on offer."
They found the hollow where Bart had split open the mail pouch and gone through his take from the strongbox. Mainly whatever had been thrown away had been gathered in by the sheriff when he reached the scene. A couple of white papers got Mitchell's attention. "Letters, so I gather we got the right spot."
"So, he took the mail sack and used his hatchet to break into the strongbox," Collins said. "That tell you anything?"
"Never touched the mail myself. Didn't want to find out what the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth is like. Mail is mainly checks you can't cash. Nothing worth the risk."
"In the mining district, he always hits the coach on its downhill run, away from the mines," Collins said. "Miners sometimes send out gold dust in their letters. No problem cashing that."
"As a simple robber, I wouldn't have known how to do that without looking suspicious." Mitchell thought a moment. "Unless he's in the mining business somehow."
Before he lost track of Bart, the Sheriff's initial pursuit had tracked the robber to a small sheep ranch and the agents followed that trail. The main road led them through towering trees and narrow vistas, but when the land leveled off Bart's trail diverged to a narrow road through grassy meadows. Soon they came across the ranch house they had been seeking.
The hired hands were out in the field penning up and shearing the animals, but they found the rancher's wife busy over the stove.
"Mrs. Vann," Collins began. "Understand you had a visitor a day ago. We'd like to talk to you about him."
"Told everything I know to that other man." Her briskness was not hostility, just letting Collins know that she had work to do and no time for useless conversation.
"Yes ma'am, and we've read what he wrote. But I find sometimes different people will hear different things." He adopted his most apologetic manner. "I know you're busy with a big group to feed. I'd appreciate just a minute or so."
"Well, I can tell you right off it's a waste of time. He couldn't have been a robber. When I first saw him walking down the road with his blanket roll, I knew at once he was a gentleman, wearing his derby hat and all. He stopped and asked for something to eat, polite as he could be, and so of course we fed him. I told him the charge was twenty-five cents, but he insisted on paying fifty cents because he said he was really hungry. Now I ask you, would any robber do that?"
"Probably not," Collins agreed. "The sheriff said he seemed middle-aged."
As is so often the case, once a witness begins to talk, information flows. "Middle-aged, medium height," Mrs. Vann said. "Not much to make him stand out. Quite a distinguished mustache. I told my man he should grow one." She took a moment to stir the pot on the stove. "Oh," she softened. "And the bluest of eyes, all friendly. Not a bit of the trashy man about him."
"Did he talk much?" Collins asked.
"No, he wasn't very talkative. I guess because he had walked a long way and was hungry. I wish he had spoken more, he had such a pleasing deep voice." A gentle smile came to her face as she thought back. "He could be a preacher," she offered, "with his dignity and that voice."
That prompted Mitchell to join the conversation. "What did he sound like? A southern gentleman? Maybe soft-spoken like me?"
"Oh no, nothing like that." The abrupt rejection of the idea by flick of her hand, a Texan could have found offensive, but it only brought the hint of a smile to Mitchell's cheeks. "Proper speech, good diction," then she added a thought. "just a touch of lilt to it. Made him seem educated, well spoken."
Collins thanked her and they were about to leave when she volunteered something she hadn't mentioned to the sheriff. "I did notice that when he set down his bedroll, it didn't collapse, but stood up on its own."
"Like it was wrapped around a rifle or shotgun?"
"Well, yes. He may have been hunting deer. It's a good season for it."
* * *
After they gave the waitress their orders in the New York Bakery, Mitchell looked around the restaurant. "Hume was right to recommend this place," he told Collins. "Cops know their territory. If they eat here, it's good."
"Over there in the corner, with the dapper-looking man. Those two are street bulls." He grinned at his partner. "Some instincts you never lose."
And in the corner table, Captain Stone was shaking his head at the editorial in the San Francisco Bulletin and its denunciation of the police's "incompetence" in the search for Black Bart. "You'd think a man who goes everywhere on foot, someone would catch up to him. What do you think Mr. Bolton?"
Their companion shook his head unhelpfully. "Mining's my game. Can't help you on police work."
As they ate, Collins and Mitchell reviewed their visit to Mendocino County. "What did we learn, Chet, besides what we already knew from reading the reports, except maybe he has a mining connection?"
Collins raised his fork in the air as he pondered. "First, we've got a feel for how he works. Methodical, but not imaginative. I wonder how he would do if he had to adjust his plan in the middle of a robbery. And either he hasn't figured out that unguarded stages will be slim pickings, or he's a nervous man who shies away from serious confrontation. Probably a man who would rather sit meekly at some restaurant waiting to be served beef stew than standing at a bar in a cowman's saloon carving a slice of roast beef off the free lunch."
Mitchell added his own thoughts. "And what you say goes with him being soft-spoken like Mrs. Vann said, with 'just a touch of the old-world lilt'. You're right, I didn't feel I knew him from reading the reports, but I'm getting to feel I would recognize him if I met him."
Even later, the agents had no notion of how close to the truth they were. But why should they, if Captain Stone had no idea himself.
* * *
I've labored long and hard for bread
for honor and for riches
but on my corns too long you've tread
you fine-haired sons of bitches.
—Black Bart, the Po8
"We got another live one, Dave."
Collins and Mitchell had been awakened long before the November sun deigned to make its gloomy appearance through San Francisco's infamous fog. When Collins opened the door, a messenger had placed an envelope in his hand.
"Who's ever heard of Copperopolis?" Mitchell grumbled as he stomped into his boots.
"Our honored employer, for one," Collins replied. "It's on the stage line from Sonora in the mining district down to Milton."
At Stockton they requisitioned horses from the Wells, Fargo station and rode east toward Milton, where they were in luck and met the stage driver, Reason McConnell, about to begin his daily trip to Sonora.
"The stage was driving along at an easy jog," McConnell reported. "We had just crossed the Stanislaus at Reynolds Ferry and were lumbering our way up Funk Hill. Just before we got to the top, the horses stopped because there was a man right up ahead of them with a black overcoat and striped pants. He had a flower sack with two eyeholes over his head." He paused meaningfully, "and a shotgun pointed in an unfriendly direction. Still, when called for me to toss down the express box and mail sack he asked politely, saying 'please.' Real easy going get-along fellow, except for the two black holes in that shotgun barrel. I tossed down the mail sack right away, but the express box was not so easy. As you know, Wells, Fargo might be a big organization, but it can learn from experience. The strongbox was bolted securely to the coach."
So far, Mitchell thought, he could almost recite the story from the twenty-seven reports he read. But as McConnell continued, things started to change.
"We gave him a problem he hadn't expected," McConnell said. "Had me a young passenger hitching a ride with his rifle to go deer hunting. I dropped him at the bottom of Funk Hill just before we started up. When he heard the coach stop, he thought maybe I needed some help, and started walking up the hill while Bart was hammering away trying to break into the strongbox.
"Him and Bart must've seen each other at the same time. When Bart saw Jimmy and his old Henry rifle, he got all flustered and broke off work on the express box." McConnell laughed at the memory. "He took off running and jumped into the brush when Jimmy's shot zinged near him. Would've thought it funny at the time if I wasn't so mad about being robbed."
Funk Hill was easy to find and the agents quickly confirmed what they could of the driver's story. They spent only a moment of order to where Bart had stopped to slit open the mail pouch and riffle through the contents. "A T-shape cut in the mail pouch is Bart's way," Collins said "but I can 't see we can learn much here."
"The sheriff wanted to know where he was going," Mitchell said. "I'd like to see where he hunkered down and waited."
Mitchell's instincts led him to a secluded area one hundred feet back from the road. "Being shot at must have flustered him." Mitchell reported. "He forgot to come back for his hat." Then, in a cleft of rock, Mitchell found a package with a few items wrapped in a handkerchief.
"Crenellated silk," Mitchell told Collins. "Our friendly poet is a fastidious dresser. We won't be finding him in some cold-water outlaw hideout. He is a city man"
Collins reached for the handkerchief. "Let me see that," Collins said. He held it up close to his eyes. "Look at that. The lettering is faint, but we can make it out. F. X. O. 7. That's a launderer's mark."
With ninety-one laundries in San Francisco, and no assurance that Bart even operated out of the city, the agents found their days monopolized by tedious city police work instead of open-air outlaw hunting, but a job is a job.
"No, that's not our mark." "We only use numbers." "Don't know whose that is." On Wednesday. On Thursday. On Friday. The words varied but the meaning was always the same.
Then Mitchell walked into Ware's Laundry at Third and Bush Street. "Why surely, 'tis our mark," the washerwoman assured him. "And I don't need to look it up in our book. A fine piece of crenellated silk like this belongs to our gentleman customer, Mr. Bolton."
"I have some business matters with him," Mitchell said. "Do you know where I might find him?"
Mr. Ware himself stepped forward. "He lives at the Webb House over on Second Street. It's just a couple of blocks. I have some errands to run. Let me take you there."
They had just turned off Bush onto Second when Ware pointed to a man approaching them.
"Why here comes the gentleman, now."
Mitchell saw a dapper middle-aged man of medium height walking up the street toward them, with the well-trimmed mustache, the graying temples, and as he got close, the riveting blue eyes that Mrs. Vann had described. Mitchell reached out his hand to the man he felt he already knew. "Dave Mitchell, Mr. Bolton. My partner and I are looking for advice from a man with your mining experience."
"Well . . . " Bolton seemed reluctant.
"Of course, we'll pay for your time."
And so, minutes later, Mitchell ushered Bolton into a nondescript office on Montgomery Street and introduced him to his "partner," not Chet Collins of course, but James Hume, chief detective for Wells, Fargo. They had barely got beyond the introductions when Mitchell reached into his pocket and withdrew the handkerchief.
As he slid it across the desk, he said "I believe I have some property of yours."
* * *
The next afternoon, when the train stopped at Sacramento, Collins procured the local newspaper. He read the article to Mitchell.
"James Hume is to be commended for his excellent police work in bringing to an end the depredations of the notorious Black Bart. He has well earned his reputation as a genius for law enforcement."
"Give credit where credit is due," Mitchell said. "Took pure genius to bring in the only two men who could solve the crime."
The two agents were chuckling contentedly as the train picked up speed toward the Sierra Nevada taking them back to what both men considered the real America.