Never Count A Man Out – Unless Your Sure

Cacti-birds-and-life-in-the-Sonoran-Desert-850x500

August 1885

The sun-scorched the three men as they walked through the Sonoran Desert southwest of Tucson. Their horses were dead and they survived for the first two weeks on their meat.

They were part of a group of men who were ambushed by hostile Indians that lived in the area. The three men had escaped, but ran their horses to death in doing so. Two of the men were from the east and had no survival experience. It was why they joined the group. The third man, Branch Older, was a professional hunter, who at 60 years-old, could still out drink, shoot, and chase whores better than any man…anywhere.

The easterners were brothers from Canton, Ohio. Against their father’s wishes they left the farm to go west in search of adventure. Alvin and George Sherman were husky farm boys and not afraid to work hard. When they joined the group they agreed to do the lowly chores of setting up and taking down camp everyday in return for experience.

They were a loose group of eight men who threw the fortunes together to survive the harsh country. Most had tried mining for silver with little success. Others hunted for pack trains passing through Arizona. The one thing they had in common was they were all getting up in age. The Sherman boys, at 21, and 22-years old, were the babies. Most of the rest were in their sixties. One was seventy-two-years old.

When the Indians hit their camp at sunrise everyone was still asleep but the guard, Pops Fargen. He had time to fire off a couple of shots from his Winchester rifle before being overwhelmed by attackers. Roused, the rest of the group grabbed their rifles and fought back. In the ensuring chaos Branch managed to get the Sherman brothers to jump onto their horses and the three rode off for their lives.

Three weeks later they were out of horsemeat and low on ammunition. Between them they had two rifles (both repeaters), one pistol, and three hunting knives. They each had a canteen with a little water that they found in a hidden spring two days ago.

Branch showed the brothers how to eat prickly pear cactus by using a knife to cut away the stickers. They grew among the giant Saguaro cactus that dotted the desert landscape. The heat stayed in the 100s during the day and dropped at night to freezing because of the altitude. The brutal weather took its toll on the men. Sunburned and blistered, they covered less distance every day.

At night they listened to el lobo, the Mexican gray wolf, howl for its mate. They sighted several cougars that didn’t bother with them. During the day they had to keep their eyes peeled for snakes. The most common were the Western Diamondbacks, with their dark diamond-shaped blotches along the center of their back.

The most venomous snake in the Sonoran desert was the Mojave Rattler, who was active at night. They hid near creosote bushes and bur sage, preferring open areas with grass. One night a Mojave rattler entered the men’s crude camp. While slithering over Branch’s leg he suddenly stirred and the snake was startled and bit him below the knee!

His howl of surprise and pain carried across the desert and a gray wolf joined in. The Sherman brothers panicked when Branch shouted “Snake! The son-of-a-bitch bit me! Quick! Cut it open and suck the venom out, he cried.

Alvin and George looked at each other dumbly. Both waiting for the other to move. George snapped out of it when Branch cursed again. He knelt down by Branch’s leg and cut open his trousers below the knee where Branch was pointing. He then took his knife, cut the wound open, and bent over and pressed his lips against it and sucked hard.

He instantly spit and tried again. After several attempts he noticed Branch was barely moving. He raised his head and tried to speak but only gibberish came out. The brothers hovered over him nervously, unsure of what to do next. Alvin threw a piece of wood onto the fire and they settled down by Branch and waited.

When morning came they couldn’t detect any life left in Branch. The two greenhorns dug a shallow grave and put Branch’s body in it after stripping off his clothes. They piled some rocks on top to discourage scavengers. George took his Winchester, and Alvin took his hunting knife.

They set out sadly. With no guide or experience, they didn’t expect to live much longer. But, as fate would have it, they came upon a road and a while later a stagecoach bound for Tucson stopped and gave them a ride on top with the luggage.

That night a hand thrust out from the desert floor knocking rocks aside. Then another. A head rose under the full moon and coughed. Minutes ticked by as Branch slowly crawled out from his crude burial ground. Despite all odds, he was alive but feeling like hell. He threw up a combination of bile and dirt. Shivering in the cold, he slowly stood up.

He had a fever and was delirious, but some lizard part of his brain made him take a step…then another. He’d survived the many life challenges he faced since he left home at ten-years-old. Six decades qualified him as a true survivor. He took another step and el lobo howled at the moon.

Two weeks passed and Branch was still alive. His face and hands were bloody from the stickers off the prickly pear cactus pads. He also ate kangaroo rats raw when he was lucky enough to catch one. He grimly kept walking and plotted what he was going to do when he found the brothers. They left him for dead. It was unforgivable.

He nearly ran out of strength when he saw a cabin. The old man who lived there was drawing water from a well when he saw Branch fall. He hurried over and dragged Branch inside the cabin. He tried to give him some water but Branch was unconscious. A week passed while the old man nursed him back to health.

During that time Branch told the old man his story and how his partners had deserted  him. The old man outfitted Branch and gave him a six-shot Colt Walker. When Branch protested it was too much, the old man insisted he take it with a box of ammunition.

“Where you’re going, your going to need one,” he said, spitting out a plug of well-chewed tobacco on the ground. “I’d give you my mule, but he’s all I got. Town is about five miles yonder. Shouldn’t take you too long to walk there.”

“Thank you. I’ll repay you some day.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just being neighborly.”

Is was noon when Branch walked into Tucson. The first place he looked for the brothers was the local saloon. They were playing poker at a table and didn’t notice Branch walk in. He came up to the table and pulled his revolver out.

“Remember me boys?” he asked.

As It Stands, as Western fans know, a man was hard to kill back in the Wild West.

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.