"Gad, dimmit, Harry! If yer gonna puke do it in someone else's saloon."
Tom Badoin—careful to keep the drunk's vomit off his starched white shirt, black vest and string tie—slipped one hand inside the back of Harry Dupont's pants, grabbed the back of his shirt with the other, dragged him across the sawdust-covered floor of the Long Bar Tavern and unceremoniously threw him through the front door, over the wood-plank stoop, and down the two steps that led to the nameless dusty, muddy, manure and horse-piss soaked street that ran through the center of Bannack, Montana.
It was September, 1863, one year and two months after John White found gold in nearby Grasshopper Creek. What had been one of the most remote corners of the Idaho Territory had quickly grown from nothing into a sprawling, lawless mass of 10,000 men.
Most were miners and prospectors, some were outlaws, and others were entrepreneurs setting up storehouses for hardware, dry goods, clothing, food stuffs, or, like Tom Badoin, trying to produce as much beer and bug juice as 10,000 thirsty men could afford to drink.
Badoin knew his trade well and set up a still and a small brewery even before he began building the saloon.
The whiskey was distilled from whatever he could find nearby—Juniper berries, perhaps, or blackberries, with a dash of tobacco and a few drops of molasses to take the edge off a drink that had the potential to leave a man crazy, blind, brain dead, or just flat-out dead. By contrast, the beer was air-temperature warm and, in order to keep up with the demand, Badoin sometimes watered it down to where there wasn't enough alcohol left to kill the cholera, typhoid, and dysentery in the water.
If a man didn't die from Tom Badoin's booze, it wasn't for the lack of trying.
Even if a man was lucky enough to find a trace of gold in the fields there wouldn't be enough of it to claim a fortune and nothing much to spend it on anyways except at the saloon. But keeping the gold in your pocket wasn't a good idea, neither. Over 100 men were murdered in and around Bannack that year, some from bad blood, but most from bandits who shot first and picked the pockets afterwards when it no longer mattered one way or the other to the man who had been wearing the pants.
Everybody knew that a lot of gold and coin were traded for alcohol every evening so it wasn't a question of "if" the Long Bar Tavern was going to be robbed, it was only a matter of "when" and "how often."
18-year old Francis Fell had decided to skip the Civil War and head west. He was flat broke when he arrived in Bannack and thought the Long Bar would be an easy place to collect enough cash to see him back down the Bozeman Trail to Colorado.
On August the 5th, he walked into the saloon with a bandana over his face, pulled out a U.S. Army-issue Colt .44 and swung it around the room until he had everybody lying on the floor.
Tom Badoin calmly pulled a shotgun from under the bar and splattered Francis half-way across the room to the front door.
"Next time they'll shoot me first," he figured, so he hired Jeb Wright to sit against the wall opposite the bar with a shotgun across his knees each evening, just to turn the odds a ways in his favor.
Jeb, it turned out, was more than just a tough-hombre bouncer. Twice, he'd talked his way out of being lynched by a mob, once in Colorado during the Pike's Peak rush a few years past, and once in Bannack back in June when Johnny Matthews fingered him for being a member of the Innocent Gang that robbed him when he was riding back from the new diggings at Alder Gulch.
"'Twarn't me what done it," Jeb said after his hands had been tied behind his back and a freshly-made noose was being fitted over his neck. "You can ask Tom Badoin if'n I war or warn't passed out drunk on his saloon floor when Johnny here was robbed. Go ask him and he'll tell you what's true."
Now no one in Bannack or the emerging settlement of Virginia City at Alder Gulch wanted to get on the wrong side of Tom Badoin 'cause of fear of being locked out from the beer and firewater. So two of the vigilantes were sent into town while Jeb sat on his horse waiting to see how things played out.
"Tom says to let him go," the men said when they returned. "That's all he said. Didn't say if Jeb here was drunk or whether he's guilty as sin. He just said, 'Let him go.'"
So they did. They let him go. They wasn't particularly happy about it, especially Johnny Matthews, but until the town got an honest-to-God judge, Tom's words were as good as law. And if Tom wasn't around to opine there was Henry Plummer who the Bannack folks had elected Sheriff earlier that spring. But the vigilantes trusted Badoin more than Plummer and some suspected the Sheriff wasn't doing all he could to bust up the gang anyways, and maybe had a hidden interest in keeping them in business.
As for Johnny, he became just another statistic when he was found dead in his tent three weeks later—shot in the head while he was asleep, and Jeb had Tom back him up with an alibi for that, too.
The Innocents were a gang of fifteen or maybe as many as fifty or sixty men who took what wasn't theirs whenever they were so inclined. If they were caught, they were hung. If they weren't, they kept at it until their luck ran out.
Even when they were being hung, none of the gang would say who ran the outfit or how the money was divvied up.
When September came around three men walked into the Long Bar Tavern with guns drawn. One walked over to Jeb and took his shotgun and another did the same with Tom behind the bar, giving neither of the two men a chance to make a move.
The third man scooped up the night's takings from the till after which they left the way they came, leaving the two shotguns behind on the stoop on their way out.
As soon as they were through the door, Tom threw on his six-shooter and ran out of the saloon shouting, "C'm on, boys. Let's get 'em and string 'em up."
Jeb and six other men signed on and, within minutes, the eight-man posse was following the dust trail left behind by the robbers.
As they rode, Tom kept thinking about the man who took the money. Even with a bandana over his face, he knew from the man's height, limp, and shock of blonde hair sticking out from under his hat that he was Buller MacQuinn. Who the other two men were he couldn't quite make out but he figured if they caught up they'd know soon enough.
About five miles out of town they had gained enough ground to see one of the men pounding dust a quarter-mile ahead. Off to their left, another plume of dust rose above a wide stretch of sagebrush and juniper.
"Let 'em go," Tom yelled, as he waved his men forward in an attempt to increase the chance to get at least one of the desperados.
But Jeb had a mind of his own and got two of the others to follow him in pursuit of the two that had split off.
Hell's bells, Tom cursed to himself, hoping that five men would be enough and hoping they'd catch up to the lone rider before he hooked up with ten or twenty more.
He needn't have worried, though, because the man they were chasing suddenly pulled up and, with his hands up in the air, waited for the posse to catch up.
"Dutch?" Tom stammered as he recognized the face of his best friend. "What the hell are you doing?"
"What the hell are you doing, Tom?" came the reply. "You've got no cause to be chasin' me half-way to Bozeman. What's going on?"
"Why were you runnin' from us?" Tom demanded,
"Damn if I didn't have three men catch up to me riding all crazy-like. One of 'em whipped my horse and forced me to keep up until they suddenly turned off to the south a-ways back and left me running on my own. Didn't know if you were friend or foe but figured the ones with their faces hid were the bad guys and you must be the good guys so I pulled up."
"No harm done, friend, but we gotta go. Jeb's got three against three and he's gonna need all the help he can get if he rides into a standoff."
With that, Tom and the four other men turned and headed back to where the rest had veered off the trail.
It wasn't five minutes later that they heard the echo of a gunshot ringing through the clear, high-country air. First one shot, then another, then a burst of five or six more.
A riderless horse galloped past, a pinto Tom recognized as belonging to one of the men who had followed Jeb off the trail—a man they soon saw sprawled dead in a pool of blood.
A quarter-mile on they saw the black smoke of gunfire and heard the whistle of lead splitting the air.
With his pistol pointed towards the sky, Tom fired one shot and cut loose with a war whoop that stirred the blood of his four companions to do the same.
A second riderless horse streaked past as they drew closer, a horse Tom did not recognize. Then, from between two dead horses they saw Jeb and his remaining companion jump to their feet and wave them on towards a rising plume of dust moving further to the south.
"Go get 'em, Tom," Jeb yelled. "But don't go stringin' 'em up without me!"
The way Tom saw it, the three robbers had split up and turned back, catching Jeb and his crew in the middle of a crossfire. When the ammunition ran out, and without horses to ride, they would have been dead within minutes if the rest of the posse hadn't shown up.
It wasn't long before Tom caught up with the two remaining riders and after a few wild, desperate shots they halted their exhausted horses, raised their empty guns in the air and dropped them in surrender.
"Buller, you bastard," Tom shouted. "I oughta shoot you and your bastard friend dead and now for what you done, but the law's what we go by around here so I'll let the Sheriff and a jury decide when and where you're going to hang."
When they got back to where Jeb was waiting, they made the two robbers walk the seven miles back to Bannack so Jeb and his surviving partner could ride. The two dead men were draped over the back of two of the posse's horses with one covered in honor and the other covered in spit and urine.
Two weeks later Sidney Edgerton, appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be the Chief Justice of the Idaho Territory, arrived in Bannack with his wife and four children—one week too late to preside over a trial that saw a mob of vigilantes decide that Buller MacQuinn and his accomplice had been allowed to breathe longer than necessary and saw to it that the breathing came to an end with the help of two nooses twisted into shape by Jeb Wright.
The lawlessness of the Innocent Gang and the growing lawlessness of the vigilantes came to a head the following January 10 when Sheriff Plummer and his two deputies were lynched by a mob after he was accused of being the gang's leader.
Were Plummer and his deputies guilty? Or innocent?
Only one thing is sure—it was one or the other.
Closing Note: Descriptions of Bannock and Virginia City, Montana, the Innocent Gang, the 100 murders, and the characters of John White, Judge Sidney Edgerton and Sheriff Henry Plummer (including his hanging) are true to history. All other named characters and the story itself are the product of the author's imagination.