Koyote Howling IV 1997
A Rip-roarin' ride by Stage
by Rich Benyo
Guest Writer

In The Spirit of Mark Twain
Territorial Enterprise
Virginia City, Nevada

Rich Benyo as Mark Twain
Rich Benyo as Mark Twain
One feature of my visit to the Great American West that never failed to amuse and astound me was my numerous voyages upon the smart ship of the Western inland seas, the stagecoach. In my book Roughing It a great deal of detail is expended upon the overland trip of my brother Orion and myself on our way to take up positions of importance in the Territory of Nevada. I have also detailed the adventures of Hank Monk, the greatest stage driver ever, in Chapter 20 in Roughing It. And during the 1995 gathering of the Royal Society of Vitesticle Koyote Howlers, I detailed the adventures to be had when a crazy Injun' attacked the coach driven by several other stagecoach stalwarts, Tall Andrew Hardage and Backdoor Bob Horton.

The adventure I am about to impart constitutes one of the bloodiest and most abhorant of misadventures ever to befall me during my Western years. So bloody, so abhorant, so outrageous was it, in fact, that I was prevailed upon to salt it away in a desk drawer lest it fall between the covers of Roughing It and by being related therein outrage those inclined to find indignities around every corner or revolt and disgust those of the fairer persuasion with its authentic savagry 'til they be once again roused to attempt to sanitize and emasculate the Wild West from that which it really was. Enough bad fortune has befallen the West without unleashing another vigilance committee of blue-haired old biddies intent upon erasing more of that which made the West worth experiencing before their gentle arrival to put things "right."

This tale begins in the town of Sonora on a day when there were no unwary drummers arriving on which the local Clamper chapter could bestow their unique welcome. The mines and coyote holes were goin' full blast, as a matter of fact, dirt and dust flyin' everywhere, smearin' a mustard color across the noonday sky. So industrious was the day that those of us attempting to engage in a bit of well-paced loitering were left without the benefit of witnesses to our indolance. What good is loitering if it goes unappreciated?

Even the local mongrels were in a state of despair. There was so much industry afoot in and around Sonora there was no-one left to throw rocks at or otherwise annoy lazing canines. It made them feel doubly worthless and morose. I admit to feeling a bit of the canine morosity myself, having spent a completely disspirited and dissipated night falling from one public house to another with little focus.

It was near that hot high noon that I heard the sounds of the approaching Sonora-Mariposa stage. As it worked its way up the main thoroughfare, provoking complaints from a half-dozen lounging yellow dogs, and berthed itself in front of the commodious Owens House Hotel, I realized it was being captained by none other than old friend Tall Andrew and shotgunned by Backdoor Bob. I arranged to get myself across the dirt street to reacquaint myself with the pair.

Tall Andrew had lept down from his pilothouse and was disembarking a man of the cloth who had the look of a scarecrow to him. He was followed by a man the width of the backside of a side of beef, who uncorked himself from the coach's door like a champagne pop. The two, an "I" and an "O" shape in the modern alphabet, shook themselves loose and went through the hotel doors. Backdoor Bob lowered their baggage from the top of the stage to Tall Andrew, then lowered two mail sacks.

"A meager day all around," I ventured.

"A meager week," said Tall Andrew as he disengaged himself from the baggage and mail he'd set upon the boardwalk. Tall as a stalk of corn and whiskered like corn silk, Andrew extended his hand. "How ya been?" he asked. Tall Andrew sported a well-worn Navy Colt on his right hip 'en a Bowie knife on his left.

"Bored as a weasel with a hernia," I replied.

Backdoor Bob deposited himself on the street next to us. "Lotta that goin' 'round," he said, also extending his hand after moving his ever-present 12-gauge from right hand to left.

"Where's Tumbleweed?" I asked.

Tall Andrew slung a thumb toward the covered rear of the stage. "Nother bad night for the 'Weed," he said. "Four nights in a row he fell offa the wagon." Tumbleweed earned his sobriquet from his penchant to drink enthusiastically, fall where he stood, 'en provide himself for being pushed or kicked out of the way. On those rare days when he was sober, he was one of the best stage drivers in the business; otherwise he served as ballast for the stage and a worthy companion for bank agent Wingate Wilson's notoriously spotless strongboxes.

"Git yer duties discharged 'en join me at the bar fer a bit 'a dust-chasin'," I offered, perceiving that setting up my old friends to a drink or two might lead me to some good.

On To Sheepranch

So it was that I was offered a seat inside the stage leaving at sundown for Mariposa by way of Sheepranch, above Angels Camp. After a hardy supper at the Ten Penny Saloon, Andrew 'en Bob 'en I went by the Wells Fargo office to deal with fussbudget Wingate Wilson, the local agent. Andrew signed for the polished strongbox and Wilson, a nattily-attired fella sportin' a modified but meticulously cared-for VanDyke, followed us to the stage, fidgetting and wiping imaginary dust from the heavy box. Wilson was the fussiest male man any male man had ever encountered. He wouldn't ever let his strongbox be throwed on top of the stage; it had to be gently stowed away in the back, with the canvas cover placed over it so's it didn't get dirty.

Tall Andrew whipped up the canvas cover out back 'en Wilson gasped when he saw Tumbleweed sprawled out. I must admit I gasped a bit myself. The tarp had been restrainin' a multitude of sins, which upon release, exploded upon our senses. The stench of stale cheap whiskey mixed with the aroma of stale cheap tacos mixed with a patently unwashed 182-pounds of snoring Tumbleweed knocked us back like the hurricane that knocked over the outhouse.

Unperturbed, Tall Andrew nudged Tumbleweed's head out of the way, he and Backdoor Bob tossed the strongbox aboard, Tumbleweed latched onto it as though it were the most expensive satin pillow, never breakin' stride with his snorin'. Tall Andrew flopped down the canvas, secured it at the bottom, and took the receipt from a petrified Wilson, scribbled his mark, 'en handed it back.

We clambered aboard the stage, making as much fuss as we could in an attempt to stir up the preoccupied town, but nobody took notice but a still-appalled Wingate Wilson. Even the dogs ignored us. I settled inside the stage, Andrew and Bob climbed to their respective thrones of importance, and Andrew maneuvered the stage away from its berth just as the sun settled onto the top of the western hills, sending orange rays through the prevailing yellow dust hanging in the air like dirty fog. It was a brilliant sundown, surpassed by the time we were outside of town by a moonrise to which the airborne dust give a Halloween look in the middle of summer.

We settled in to the snap and gingle of harnass and the one-sided conversation between Tall Andrew and Backdoor Bob. The payroll for the mine at Sheepranch softened the dreams of Tumbleweed in the back, and I settled down to enjoy the ghostly landscape as it moved by under a full moon, now gloriously white and brilliant that we were away from the pollution that locally passed for civilization.

I found myself lapsing into one of those marvelous reveries sometimes brought on by a full stomach and a good cigar wherein time slows its inexorable march and the world makes itself peaceful. The rocking of the coach, the gurgling of a good supper stirred with a few drinks, the lazy drifting of cigar smoke...it was a wonderful world.

Which made the abrupt halt of the coach seem even more jarring as Tall Andrew roughly reined in his team. Had I been sitting upright instead of lounging, I would have been thrown across the coach. "What the--?" I said as I thrust my head outside the coach, only to unthrust it when in the moon's stark beam I saw two riders with drawn pistols. There was enough light to see that one of the rascals was tall and wiry, the other short and round and by the cut of his saddle and clothes, of the Mexican persuasion.

The horses, abruptly brought to a halt, complained against the reins. "Put dem guns down!" the tall man commanded, aiming his gun surely at Andrew and Bob. The short robber's horse turned in a circle against the command of his reins. "Dammit!" the short man slurred, reins in one hand, his pistol waving in the other hand. "Stop! Dammit!"

Slowly Slid Guns

Backdoor Bob slid his shotgun onto the top of the coach. Tall Andrew continued to pull back hard on the reins in an attempt to control the spooked horses. "You," the tall man said, indicating Bob. "Take his gun out of his holster and get rid of it--!" Bob did as he was ordered while Andrew set the brake and quieted the horses. "Git down, both on this side," the tall man said. I eased my head out the door, not wanting to startle our visitors, especially the short feller, who appeared nervous and wired, even after his horse settled down. Not the kind of feller you want waving a gun at you. "You too!" the tall guy said to me. I eased myself out of the stage, my hands up. He moved his pistol a few inches to the left. "Get rid 'a the iron--" I gingerly eased my pistol out of its holster and tossed it back inside the coach.

The short Mexican, feeling obliged to have some part in the proceedings, waved his already wavering guy in an attempt to herd the three of us together beside the coach. Sweat glistened on his forehead and a big, meaty drop slid down his stubbled cheek. Tall Andrew nervously regarded the Mexican for what he was: nervous, and therefore dangerous, an open barrel of black powder on Chinese New Year.

The Mexican got off his horse too quickly, and it reared in protest. He swung his free hand at the horse's head, missed, and nearly lost his footing, his gun swinging around dangerously.

"Easy, Raff," the tall rider said, taking control of both horses before dismounting himself. He moved the business end of his pistol a few inches, indicating he wanted us to move to the back of the stage.

"No problem, mister," Bob said, the three of us shuffling toward the rear of the stage, all three of us careful to do nothing that would set 'Raff' off. Somewhere out in the hills a coyote let out a yelp; it was answered by two other coyotes far off behind us.

We lined ourselves along the back of the stage, Tall Andrew closest to the canvas cover. In the silver light of the moon, everything was illuminated clearly but with a spectral hue. Tall Andrew's eyes gleamed like pearls. He cocked his head a bit toward the canvas covering, as though giving us some sort of message.

The Mexican was a jangle of nerves, fidgetting and sweating, his gun waving back and forth, his feet moving as though he were doing a miniature jig. The tall feller just stood tall and calm, occasionally casting a concerned eye at his partner.

"The strongbox," the tall guy said simply.

Tall Andrew indicated the canvas cover.

"Haul it out," he said.

"Yeah, yeah, haul it out," the Mexican said, his excitement growing.

"We don't want no trouble," Tall Andrew said, making slow, cautious movements toward the straps and buckles that held the canvas down. He made an effort to keep his left side away from the robbers, exaggerated the effort necessary to unbuckle the straps. The Mexican Raff moved forward eagerly, licking his lips as though he'd just enjoyed a particularly scrumptous burrito. Another coyote howled; the horses neighed nervously. The tall robber inched forward, completely under control.

Tall Andrew nudged Backdoor Bob, signalled him with his eyes to move around behind him. I took the hint myself, moving away to give the two outlaws full access to the strongbox when the flap came up. The two of them were so intent on what they were about to see that they didn't notice Tall Andrew pull out his Bowie knife. In one swift, rattlesnake move, Andrew thrust the pin-sharp point of the knife under the canvas flap. For one tick of the heart, nothing happened. By by the next tick, a roar like a stuck bull erupted. The two robbers looked at each other quickly and that second of hesitation sealed their fates.

The Great Eruption

As though it was a bear erupting from its den, the canvas flap whipped up and Tumbleweed landed on top of the two outlaws. They hit the ground with a collective thump as the wind was squished from their chests. Tumbleweed tumbled amongst those two outlaws like a farro dealer with a royal flush. He was here and there and everywhere and I never did see a man that big move that fast in my whole life, and I've seen some big men move.

The three of us had stepped back to give the drama more space to play itself out, and Tumbleweed was all over that space, ripping and tearing, mauling and marauding, a fury in full form, clawing and chewing, spitting and gouging.

There were great howls of pain and discomfort, stupendous roars of rage from Tumbleweed, the horses became increasingly uneasy, the coyotes round about began to howl back in agreement, then the first ear hit me in the chest.

I can't rightly say whose ear it was, it was chewed up a bit. Its mushiness and a coating of saliva caused it to stick, for just a moment, to my vest, before gravity caught up to it and it fell to the dirt. By the time I looked back, there was clothes being ripped and thrown about, body parts were rendered and flung here and there, and Tumbleweed continued to move around, creating his own whirlwind. The sound was like a stormed sea crashing around us but we were too stunned to react.

The howls of pain and rage from the Mexican were painful for us to endure. More body parts were flung about, parts that a moment before had been in full use but that were now merely anatomical debris. What Tumbleweed was doing to those outlaws was inhuman, bits and pieces flying here and everywhere.

Back Door Bob's adam's apple did a dance as he worked up enough spit to say something. "Y-y-y-you ba-ba-better do somethin'!" he finally got out.

Tall Andrew saw that he'd better. He feigned to one side, dodging a nose that was hurled in his direction, the lunged toward the front of the stage, where he climbed atop it, rummaged around while Tumbleweed did more and more damage, excessive at this point, Bob and I agreed. "There ain't gonna be nothing left ta turn over ta the sherrif," Bob said, too fascinated by the carnage to take his eyes away.

In a moment Tall Andrew was back, a bottle of whiskey in his hand. "Help me!" he urged Bob and I. We shrugged. "Each of ya grab a arm 'en hold on tight while I git this into his mouth." So saying, Andrew pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth, nodded to Bob and I, and prepared himself. Bob and I jumped onto Tumbleweed's back and were thrown around like bronc busters. Tall Andrew's aim was good, though, and he got the business end of that bottle into Tumbleweed's mouth first try.

The transformation was stunning. One moment Tumbleweed was a raging fury, next moment he was curled up on the ground suckin' on that whiskey bottle as though it was his own mother's teat, a beatific look on his bloodied face.

There was suddenly a startling calm on the land. The coyotes had stopped howling, the horses had calmed down. The only sound was the moaning and lowing of the two unfortunate pitiful excuses for badmen. They were a mess. Shards and parts of them were strewn all about the landscape. Backdoor slapped a palm to his forehead in wonder.

Tall Andrew proceeded to lead Tumbleweed, like the big old baby he was, into the back of the stage, where he curled up with his bottle, his head softly rested against the still-immaculate strongbox. All's Wingate would find on his precious box was some blood and a few pieces of loose flesh. Could have happened almost anywhere.

We set about the gory duty of picking up scattered body pieces. We each wore our gloves for that duty. It was Backdoor who found the discarded manly parts. He carried them gingerly back to where Tall Andrew and I had spread a spare tarp on the floor inside the stage where we'd carefully lifted the much diminished badmen, gently tossing the bits of them in as we found them. "What I do with this--?" Backdoor asked.

"Give it back to 'em, whichever's it is," Tall Andrew said, cocking his head toward the inside of the stage where the two rascals lay gasping 'en weeping 'en moanin' in great pains.

"I don't know whichever's it is," Backdoor whined.

"We kin let 'em share it 'til we find the other," I suggested.

Backdoor liked that solution and threw the appendage into the stage haphazardly, letting it land where it may.

We eventually found just about everything and were even able to reattach the odd part here and there, but being as the interior of the coach was not illuminated by the observing moon, we weren't sure the parts were attached to their rightful owners.

When our work was finished, we stood around in a little circle, breathing hard, exhausted at our labors, ashamed of the part we'd played in the melee.

We Make A Pact

We made a pact that we'd tell the sherrif in Angels Camp that we'd been held up, that while their backs were turned a rabid bear had attacked the two desperadoes, that we were lucky to have got away with our skins, that it took a long time to beat the beast away, and let the pieces fall where they may. No mention of Tumbleweed's role was to be made. We figured we owed him that much. Were he to find out that he'd had an outlaw's manliness in his own mouth, we feared it would ruin what was left of his life. It could conceivably turn him morose or worse.

We never did find the second organ, so as far as I know, the two scoundrels have been sharing what we did find. I do know the two of 'em, or what was left, was made short-shift of by the judge, who put them away for 10 years. He'd of given them more time, but when he gazed in wonder upon them, the sorrowful side of his male harshness came to the fore and he experienced a fit of pity, some say for the first and last time in his long, illustrious career.

Tumbleweed? He never did learn of his role in saving the strongbox--and possibly our lives. In fact he went so far as to thank us for saving his life from the highwaymen. Life's ironic like that.

Tall Andrew and Backdoor Bob continue to run the stage through the Mother Lode. But when they're downing one or two after work at a bar, when tall tales are raised, they keep their own counsel, and merely nod knowingly to each other. When he's feeling particularly feisty, Tall Andrew will make as though he's spittin' something out of his mouth and Backdoor Bob will become convulsed with laugher for an hour or two.

I'm back in the East these days, wishin' I were convulsed with laugher more often. -- Rich Benyo

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