Copyright© 2022 by Joe J
I did not have a destination in mind when I left the homestead in Wyoming on my birthday, but I did have a direction. I was headed south. I chose to go in that direction on a whim. I could have as easily picked any other point of the compass. I rode some and walked a little during the day and at night I slept under a lean-to tent I made out of oil cloth. I slept warm and cozy wrapped in my buffalo hide. The weather was cold but tolerable with not much in the way of snow. I kept up a good pace and made it to Fort Collins, Colorado in only four days. Fort Collins looked as if it were an interesting place, so I liveried my horse and mule and took a look around. My first stop was the sheriff’s office. I was looking to see if the sheriff would secure some of my weapons for me.
The sheriff was in conversation with a man whose back was to me, so I politely waited until they finished talking. The man talking to the sheriff was angry, but was holding himself in check with great effort. From the snippets of conversation I heard, the man was some sort of Wells Fargo agent investigating a stagecoach robbery. The man’s voice sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t place where I knew it from. The man finished his conversation and turned around. Both of us were startled when we recognized the other.
His name was Grady Miller. He was once Major Grady Miller, and for a year he was commander of the headquarters battalion of the Army of Northern Virginia and my commanding officer. Miller’s face broke into a smile and he stuck out his hand. I had a passing acquaintance with Miller, but he was one of the real officers I tried to avoid when I served with Lee’s headquarters.
“Lieutenant Brock, what an unexpected pleasure. Where’s that horse thief Colbert? I’m not used to seeing one of you without the other.”
“Likewise Major,” I replied. “I’ll tell you all about it over a drink as soon as I ask the sheriff for a favor.”
The sheriff was more than happy to have two less guns in town and even suggested holding onto my Colt for me. I thanked him kindly for the offer but demurred. I wasn’t about to go about unarmed.
Miller and I retired to a dim and smoky saloon and over bad rotgut whiskey caught each other up on our lives since the war. Miller was a Colorado native and had been able to return to the same job with Wells Fargo the he had held before the war. He was nominally assigned to the company’s Denver office but he was often out on the road keeping the stage coach line running smoothly. He was in Fort Collins because one of the company’s coaches had disappeared. The coach, passengers, crew, horses and strong box had vanished without a trace. Miller suspected an inside job because that particular coach was carrying five thousand dollars in newly minted gold coins destined for the army garrison in Sidney, Nebraska
I ended up becoming an employee of the Wells Fargo company before another hour had passed. I can not recall how Grady Miller managed to slip me working for him into the conversation or why I accepted. It was a moot point by then though, as Grady led me down to the Wells Fargo office to introduce me around.
Wells Fargo had a good-sized operation in Fort Collins. Besides banking, assaying and stage coach offices, they had a stable, a coach barn, and a bunk house for the drivers, guards and dispatch riders. Miller explained that Fort Collins was the clearing house for silver and gold ore mined in the mountains just to the west. Wells Fargo was under contract with the Denver mint to assay, store and transport bullion down to Denver. They also were the sole supplier for security and transportation for finished coinage. Before I could say it, I was a stagecoach driver and guard.
The station manager for the stage coach operation did not waste any time putting me to work. He issued me a duck cloth duster, a regular cotton duster, a double barreled shotgun with a sixteen inch barrel and a bandolier with thirty brass shotgun shells, then led me to the bunkhouse to meet the other drivers and guards. The men I met were a hard and coarse bunch. I thought it just my luck that I was teamed up to the hardest and coarsest of them for my first run. My new partner was a wiry, wizened little fellow named Bob Randolph. He looked as ornery as a snake and cursed a blue streak. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, and stuck out my hand to shake his.
“My name is Jeb, pleased to meet you,” I said, real friendly like.
He looked at my hand, spit a big steam of tobacco juice onto the floor and proceeded to tell the station manager that he was too old to nursemaid some big stupid plow boy, except Randolph used language that would have made a sailor blush. I spent four years in the army and had sailed for ten days on a river boat and I had still never heard anyone who could even come close to cussing like Bob. I took about twenty seconds of his harangue then reached down, grabbed him by the collar with my right hand and lifted him off his feet until we were nose to nose. He went for his gun and I clamped onto his wrist with my left hand. I was a big man and a summer of hard work had made me as strong as an ox.
“Do you kiss your mother with that filthy mouth?” I asked softly.
Randolph gave me a crooked grin and patted me on the shoulder.
“All right son, you will do. Now put me down and we will repair to the saloon for some liquid refreshments.”
I did not lower him an inch. Instead, I looked at him quizzically.
“It was a test, Jeremiah. I had to know how you handled yourself before I climbed up on that driver’s box with my life depending on you tomorrow.”
I set him down still looking at him funny. He was testing me? That seemed strange given that I was a foot taller, eighty pounds heavier and a seasoned veteran of the greatest army ever assembled. I also wondered where his profane and vulgar speech went because his last two utterances were in the cultured and refined manner I associated with Lenora Quiller and her well to do friends in Richmond. I followed my new partner to a saloon called Dead Eye Dick’s to find some answers. The saloon was thick with smoke, both wood and tobacco, and it was loud and raucous. My mother would have had a conniption fit had she known I was already in my second saloon on my first day in town. Miners were jostling with cowboys over the affections of a few bored looking fallen doves as a man in a bowler hat clanged discordant notes on the keys of a battered upright piano. I was trying to look everywhere at once because it was my first venture into the world that JC used to inhabit. Bob chuckled and led me to the bar.
“Innkeeper, a flagon of your most quaffable elixir for my young friend and myself,” Bob said regally.
The harried looking barman raised his eyebrows, gave Bob a mock salute and pulled a bottle off the shelf behind him. He put the bottle on the bar between Bob and me then produced two lead crystal glasses with a flourish while still keeping one hand firmly on the bottle of whiskey.
“There you go professor,” the barman said, “that will be six bits, silver.”
Bob made a production out of checking his pockets for money then shrugged and turned to me.
“I seem to be temporarily without funds, Jeremiah. If you will stand for our libations, I will take care of our next visit.”
I plunked a dollar down on the bar. As soon as the barman reached for the money, Bob snatched up the bottle and pulled the cork stopper with his teeth. He poured me a small shot of the whiskey then turned the bottle up and drank a quarter of it in one continuous gulp. I sat and nursed my shot of rotgut rye as I quizzed Bob about his past.
He had not been a college professor. Instead, he was a lawyer back in his native Philadelphia before running afoul of his social class by seducing the wife of one of his wealthy clients. His vindictive client had ruined him financially and socially. Bob left Philadelphia a bitter and broken man and headed west to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush of 1848. He prospected unsuccessfully for three years before taking a job with Wells Fargo. He had been drifting around the west from Texas to Oregon for the last fifteen years. I was enthralled by his story.
“What would you do differently, if you could relive your life?” I asked.
He grinned and took another healthy swig from the almost empty bottle.
“Not a damned thing!” he replied emphatically.
Bob woke me up the next morning at five. He was cheerful and bore no signs of being hung-over despite nearly a quart of whiskey he had consumed the night before. I dressed warmly and followed him out to the stable. Bob picked four horses and we harnessed them. The Wells Fargo tack was high quality and in excellent repair. We led the horses to the carriage house and hooked them to the stage coach’s double tree tongue. The coach was in even better repair than the tack. It was bright red with Wells Fargo & Co. lettered in gold leaf on both sides and the back. We climbed up into the driver’s box, Bob took the reins, and we drove over to the Wells Fargo offices.
We swung by the sheriff’s office to pick up my rifles and were sitting in the front of the stage coach office at six on the dot. I hopped down off the box to help the three passengers waiting on the porch with their baggage. I piled their bags onto the boot shelf at the rear of the coach and lashed them securely with a rope. The passengers mounted the cab of the coach as Bob and I went into the bank to retrieve the strongbox we were delivering to Denver. Bob lifted one end of the box with a grunt while I took the other. The box was heavy for its size. It probably weighed a hundred pounds. Its steel construction and hefty lock still did not account for its weight. Bob frowned but did not say anything to the two bank guards or the teller as we walked out. I hefted the strongbox over the lip of the driver’s box and set it in the foot well on the passenger side.
Bob clucked the horses into motion at exactly six-ten and we headed south for the two day trip to Denver. Bob schooled me on my duties as we rode. He explained that, in the vernacular of Wells Fargo & Company, we were called express messengers, a name given us because we also carried mail. We would share driving duties. The man not driving was commonly called the shotgun messenger. Our first duty was to insure the safety of our passengers while our second was to safeguard our cargo. In our case that was the sack of mail and strongbox we carried. Mention of the strongbox made Bob frown again.
“That strongbox is the heaviest I have ever transported. A most worrisome fact coming on the heels of Cottonwood Joe and his coach disappearing last week,” he said.
I agreed and asked why more guards were not riding with us. He replied, “Not every coach carries a strongbox worth stealing, so extra guards only identify those that do and invite an attack. Until last week, it was not a problem.”
I was extra vigilant because of Bob’s concerns but our day was uneventful. We changed teams at a way station six hours after our departure. All Wells Fargo routes were laid out in that manner. Some of the stations were company trading posts set along the road, while others were private farms or stables. At most of the stops you could buy a meal and a drink if you were so inclined. Way station stops were generally thirty minutes or less.