The ‘Town Dummy’ That Saved Tonopah’s Silver

TonopahfromFlorenceHillNWOn May 19, 1900, Tonopah became the site of the second richest silver mine in Nevada, when a prospector named Jim Butler discovered silver-rich ore.

It was also the setting for an epic standoff between the town and an Indian who called himself Coyote Man.

The Yomba Shoshone Band who lived near Tonopah on a reservation, kept to themselves. If there was one thing that scared them more than the white man; it was the Coyote Man who lived near their reservation.

He was bigger than any of them, standing six-feet tall. He looked like a man, but they knew him for a Trickster according to their legends. He was as fast as a snake, and almost as wise as Wolf father. If he had one weakness, it was his pride.

He regularly visited the elders trying to get them involved in schemes that they knew would end poorly for them. They always respectively declined. Coyote Man would show his teeth in what was supposed to be a smile, but came across as a grimace, before leaving.

Luke Denst was a giant among men. He stood six-feet, six inches, tall and weighed 300 pounds. His massive torso sprouted thickly corded arms and legs. His head, perched on a squat neck, looked too small for his huge frame.

He made his living in Tonopah by challenging men to stay in a ring with him for three rounds. They’d win if they were still standing. Luke always won. His reputation was enough for most sane men in the area, but there were always those who put up their money thinking they could beat the slow-moving moron.

You see, Luke had the brain of a nine-year old, and was normally a jovial companion to have around. His good nature hid his anger. He was slow to get mad, but when did, he unleashed a fury that frightened onlookers…and his challenger.

John Denst, Luke’s father, handled all of his affairs and set up the fights. Luke’s fights were more amusing than one might think. It always started out with his opponent pounding on him!

When he finally got hit too hard in the face he lashed out. It generally only took one, or two, punches before his opponent was unconscious. Afterwards, his father would pour a bucket of water over Luke’s bald head to calm him down.

The Coyote man had a vision one night. In it, he was standing in a pile of silver bars that stretched to the skies. The white men in Tonopah gave it to him to protect their town. He wondered briefly what he would do with so much silver, but then the thought disappeared.

When he woke in the morning he set about making his vision true. While staying out of sight, he watched the white miners activities. In particular, he watched where the sticks of dynamite came from.

The shed where the nitro glycerine and dynamite were stored was guarded by two armed men. Coyote Man waited until late that night, and snuck up on the sleeping guards and cut their throats. He took a wooden box packed with dynamite back to his lair.

The first blast rocked the Tonopah Hotel killing most of the inhabitants. In the ensuing chaos another blast blew up the telegraph office and the towns newspaper – The Tonopah Bonanza – office. The town sheriff deputized everyone who had a gun and they swept the countryside looking for whoever committed the atrocities.

When the posse came to the Yomba reservation the sheriff questioned their chief, He Who Walks Softly, who told them he suspected it was Coyote Man. As the large posse rode off it left a cloud of dust hanging in the 100 degree sun. The elders looked at one another sadly.

On day two, Coyote Man blew up the entrances at three active mines. The next day he blew up four mines. A sense of doom and panic crept through the mining community and the townspeople of Tonopah.

Men gathered in large groups and searched for the perpetrator. By now everyone heard what the Yomba Shoshone chief told the Sheriff. Greed held the majority of the miners there.

In desperation the sheriff road back to the reservation and talked with He Who Walks Softly throughout the night. At first light the two men shook hands and parted.

Coyote Man was surprised to see Chief He Who Walks Softly riding alone and crying out his name. Curious, he jumped onto his pinto, and rode down the plateau to hear what he had to say.

“The white men want to parley,” the old chief said.

“Then they know who I am?”  

“Yes, I had to tell them. They threatened the whole tribe.”

A long silence as Coyote Man slowly circled around the chief, lost in his thoughts.

“What do the white-eyes have that would interest me?” he asked with a teasing tone.

Silver bullion. A wagon full.”

Coyote Man allowed a semblance of a smile to curl his thin lips. It was so easy. What cowards those men were!

“Tell them to deliver the wagon here in this valley and I give my word that I will no longer attack them.”

“Oh…there is one more thing,” the chief recalled. “They think you are such a coward that you wouldn’t even fight the stupidist among them to defend your honor.”

Rage lit up Coyote Man’s face. How dare the fools make such a claim!

“Bring him here, and after I beat the fool to death, they will realize I’m not one to mock.”

Luke and his father stood next to the sheriff and chief He Who walks Slowly, and his son. A wagon with a tarp over it waited for Coyote Man.

“You know what to do Luke,” his father assured him as Coyote Man approached on his pinto. He jumped off its bare back and boldly walked up to the five men waiting for him.

“No weapons,” the chief said as Luke walked up to his opponent.

Luke’s sheer size surprised Coyote Man. Then he looked into his eyes and saw an idiot there. He was blinking stupidly and holding up his ham-sized fists in a boxing stance. In a blinding move, he kicked Luke in the crotch while throwing sand into his face!

As Luke lumbered about helplessly Coyote Man hit him repeatedly in the ribs and chest. He jumped on Luke’s back and tried to put a choke hold on him but couldn’t find enough neck to make it work.

When he bit Luke’s nose the giant roared and flicked him off like a flea! He hit the ground hard and suddenly realized he’d been duped. When he got back up he pulled a hidden knife out.

Even Luke’s weak brain knew enough to avoid a knife. But he was mad. When Coyote Man lunged at him he grabbed him and pulled him into his body so tightly Coyote Man’s spine snapped.

When the sheriff and his father ran over to Luke they saw blood welling up on his chest. His rage left him and he was standing there dumbly waiting for help.

Because this was such an embarrasing incident everyone in Tonopah agreed not to talk about it with outsiders. When Luke told the story in the saloon and showed his scar to visitors they would wink at one another and smile at him. Sometime they bought him a beer.

As It Stands, there are times when brawn does overcome brains.

 

Author: Dave Stancliff

Retired newspaper editor/publisher, Vietnam veteran, freelance writer, blogger, married 43 years with three sons and five grandchildren.

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