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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter XI

Roughing It

Chapter XI


And sure enough, two or three years afterward, we did hear him again.
News came to the Pacific coast that the Vigilance Committee in Montana
(whither Slade had removed from Rocky Ridge) had hanged him. I find an
account of the affair in the thrilling little book I quoted a paragraph
from in the last chapter--"The Vigilantes of Montana; being a Reliable
Account of the Capture, Trial and Execution of Henry Plummer's Notorious
Road Agent Band: By Prof. Thos. J. Dimsdale, Virginia City, M.T."
Mr. Dimsdale's chapter is well worth reading, as a specimen of how the
people of the frontier deal with criminals when the courts of law prove
inefficient. Mr. Dimsdale makes two remarks about Slade, both of which
are accurately descriptive, and one of which is exceedingly picturesque:
"Those who saw him in his natural state only, would pronounce him to be a
kind husband, a most hospitable host and a courteous gentleman; on the
contrary, those who met him when maddened with liquor and surrounded by a
gang of armed roughs, would pronounce him a fiend incarnate." And this:
"From Fort Kearney, west, he was feared a great deal more than the
almighty." For compactness, simplicity and vigor of expression, I will
"back" that sentence against anything in literature. Mr. Dimsdale's
narrative is as follows. In all places where italics occur, they are
mine:

     After the execution of the five men on the 14th of January, the
     Vigilantes considered that their work was nearly ended. They had
     freed the country of highwaymen and murderers to a great extent, and
     they determined that in the absence of the regular civil authority
     they would establish a People's Court where all offenders should be
     tried by judge and jury. This was the nearest approach to social
     order that the circumstances permitted, and, though strict legal
     authority was wanting, yet the people were firmly determined to
     maintain its efficiency, and to enforce its decrees. It may here be
     mentioned that the overt act which was the last round on the fatal
     ladder leading to the scaffold on which Slade perished, was the
     tearing in pieces and stamping upon a writ of this court, followed
     by his arrest of the Judge Alex. Davis, by authority of a presented
     Derringer, and with his own hands.

     J. A. Slade was himself, we have been informed, a Vigilante; he
     openly boasted of it, and said he knew all that they knew. He was
     never accused, or even suspected, of either murder or robbery,
     committed in this Territory (the latter crime was never laid to his
     charge, in any place); but that he had killed several men in other
     localities was notorious, and his bad reputation in this respect was
     a most powerful argument in determining his fate, when he was
     finally arrested for the offence above mentioned. On returning from
     Milk River he became more and more addicted to drinking, until at
     last it was a common feat for him and his friends to "take the
     town." He and a couple of his dependents might often be seen on one
     horse, galloping through the streets, shouting and yelling, firing
     revolvers, etc. On many occasions he would ride his horse into
     stores, break up bars, toss the scales out of doors and use most
     insulting language to parties present. Just previous to the day of
     his arrest, he had given a fearful beating to one of his followers;
     but such was his influence over them that the man wept bitterly at
     the gallows, and begged for his life with all his power. It had
     become quite common, when Slade was on a spree, for the shop-keepers
     and citizens to close the stores and put out all the lights; being
     fearful of some outrage at his hands. For his wanton destruction of
     goods and furniture, he was always ready to pay, when sober, if he
     had money; but there were not a few who regarded payment as small
     satisfaction for the outrage, and these men were his personal
     enemies.

     From time to time Slade received warnings from men that he well knew
     would not deceive him, of the certain end of his conduct. There was
     not a moment, for weeks previous to his arrest, in which the public
     did not expect to hear of some bloody outrage. The dread of his
     very name, and the presence of the armed band of hangers-on who
     followed him alone prevented a resistance which must certainly have
     ended in the instant murder or mutilation of the opposing party.

     Slade was frequently arrested by order of the court whose
     organization we have described, and had treated it with respect by
     paying one or two fines and promising to pay the rest when he had
     money; but in the transaction that occurred at this crisis, he
     forgot even this caution, and goaded by passion and the hatred of
     restraint, he sprang into the embrace of death.

     Slade had been drunk and "cutting up" all night. He and his
     companions had made the town a perfect hell. In the morning, J. M.
     Fox, the sheriff, met him, arrested him, took him into court and
     commenced reading a warrant that he had for his arrest, by way of
     arraignment. He became uncontrollably furious, and seizing the
     writ, he tore it up, threw it on the ground and stamped upon it.

     The clicking of the locks of his companions' revolvers was instantly
     heard, and a crisis was expected. The sheriff did not attempt his
     retention; but being at least as prudent as he was valiant, he
     succumbed, leaving Slade the master of the situation and the
     conqueror and ruler of the courts, law and law-makers. This was a
     declaration of war, and was so accepted. The Vigilance Committee
     now felt that the question of social order and the preponderance of
     the law-abiding citizens had then and there to be decided. They
     knew the character of Slade, and they were well aware that they must
     submit to his rule without murmur, or else that he must be dealt
     with in such fashion as would prevent his being able to wreak his
     vengeance on the committee, who could never have hoped to live in
     the Territory secure from outrage or death, and who could never
     leave it without encountering his friend, whom his victory would
     have emboldened and stimulated to a pitch that would have rendered
     them reckless of consequences. The day previous he had ridden into
     Dorris's store, and on being requested to leave, he drew his
     revolver and threatened to kill the gentleman who spoke to him.
     Another saloon he had led his horse into, and buying a bottle of
     wine, he tried to make the animal drink it. This was not considered
     an uncommon performance, as he had often entered saloons and
     commenced firing at the lamps, causing a wild stampede.

     A leading member of the committee met Slade, and informed him in the
     quiet, earnest manner of one who feels the importance of what he is
     saying: "Slade, get your horse at once, and go home, or there will
     be ---- to pay." Slade started and took a long look, with his dark
     and piercing eyes, at the gentleman. "What do you mean?" said he.
     "You have no right to ask me what I mean," was the quiet reply, "get
     your horse at once, and remember what I tell you." After a short
     pause he promised to do so, and actually got into the saddle; but,
     being still intoxicated, he began calling aloud to one after another
     of his friends, and at last seemed to have forgotten the warning he
     had received and became again uproarious, shouting the name of a
     well-known courtezan in company with those of two men whom he
     considered heads of the committee, as a sort of challenge; perhaps,
     however, as a simple act of bravado. It seems probable that the
     intimation of personal danger he had received had not been forgotten
     entirely; though fatally for him, he took a foolish way of showing
     his remembrance of it. He sought out Alexander Davis, the Judge of
     the Court, and drawing a cocked Derringer, he presented it at his
     head, and told him that he should hold him as a hostage for his own
     safety. As the judge stood perfectly quiet, and offered no
     resistance to his captor, no further outrage followed on this score.
     Previous to this, on account of the critical state of affairs, the
     committee had met, and at last resolved to arrest him. His
     execution had not been agreed upon, and, at that time, would have
     been negatived, most assuredly. A messenger rode down to Nevada to
     inform the leading men of what was on hand, as it was desirable to
     show that there was a feeling of unanimity on the subject, all along
     the gulch.

     The miners turned out almost en masse, leaving their work and
     forming in solid column about six hundred strong, armed to the
     teeth, they marched up to Virginia. The leader of the body well
     knew the temper of his men on the subject. He spurred on ahead of
     them, and hastily calling a meeting of the executive, he told them
     plainly that the miners meant "business," and that, if they came up,
     they would not stand in the street to be shot down by Slade's
     friends; but that they would take him and hang him. The meeting was
     small, as the Virginia men were loath to act at all. This momentous
     announcement of the feeling of the Lower Town was made to a cluster
     of men, who were deliberation behind a wagon, at the rear of a store
     on Main street.

     The committee were most unwilling to proceed to extremities. All
     the duty they had ever performed seemed as nothing to the task
     before them; but they had to decide, and that quickly. It was
     finally agreed that if the whole body of the miners were of the
     opinion that he should be hanged, that the committee left it in
     their hands to deal with him. Off, at hot speed, rode the leader of
     the Nevada men to join his command.

     Slade had found out what was intended, and the news sobered him
     instantly. He went into P. S. Pfouts' store, where Davis was, and
     apologized for his conduct, saying that he would take it all back.

     The head of the column now wheeled into Wallace street and marched
     up at quick time. Halting in front of the store, the executive
     officer of the committee stepped forward and arrested Slade, who was
     at once informed of his doom, and inquiry was made as to whether he
     had any business to settle. Several parties spoke to him on the
     subject; but to all such inquiries he turned a deaf ear, being
     entirely absorbed in the terrifying reflections on his own awful
     position. He never ceased his entreaties for life, and to see his
     dear wife. The unfortunate lady referred to, between whom and Slade
     there existed a warm affection, was at this time living at their
     ranch on the Madison. She was possessed of considerable personal
     attractions; tall, well-formed, of graceful carriage, pleasing
     manners, and was, withal, an accomplished horsewoman.

     A messenger from Slade rode at full speed to inform her of her
     husband's arrest. In an instant she was in the saddle, and with all
     the energy that love and despair could lend to an ardent temperament
     and a strong physique, she urged her fleet charger over the twelve
     miles of rough and rocky ground that intervened between her and the
     object of her passionate devotion.

     Meanwhile a party of volunteers had made the necessary preparations
     for the execution, in the valley traversed by the branch. Beneath
     the site of Pfouts and Russell's stone building there was a corral,
     the gate-posts of which were strong and high. Across the top was
     laid a beam, to which the rope was fastened, and a dry-goods box
     served for the platform. To this place Slade was marched,
     surrounded by a guard, composing the best armed and most numerous
     force that has ever appeared in Montana Territory.

     The doomed man had so exhausted himself by tears, prayers and
     lamentations, that he had scarcely strength left to stand under the
     fatal beam. He repeatedly exclaimed, "My God! my God! must I die?
     Oh, my dear wife!"

     On the return of the fatigue party, they encountered some friends of
     Slade, staunch and reliable citizens and members of the committee,
     but who were personally attached to the condemned. On hearing of
     his sentence, one of them, a stout-hearted man, pulled out his
     handkerchief and walked away, weeping like a child. Slade still
     begged to see his wife, most piteously, and it seemed hard to deny
     his request; but the bloody consequences that were sure to follow
     the inevitable attempt at a rescue, that her presence and entreaties
     would have certainly incited, forbade the granting of his request.
     Several gentlemen were sent for to see him, in his last moments, one
     of whom (Judge Davis) made a short address to the people; but in
     such low tones as to be inaudible, save to a few in his immediate
     vicinity. One of his friends, after exhausting his powers of
     entreaty, threw off his coat and declared that the prisoner could
     not be hanged until he himself was killed. A hundred guns were
     instantly leveled at him; whereupon he turned and fled; but, being
     brought back, he was compelled to resume his coat, and to give a
     promise of future peaceable demeanor.

     Scarcely a leading man in Virginia could be found, though numbers of
     the citizens joined the ranks of the guard when the arrest was made.
     All lamented the stern necessity which dictated the execution.

     Everything being ready, the command was given, "Men, do your duty,"
     and the box being instantly slipped from beneath his feet, he died
     almost instantaneously.

     The body was cut down and carried to the Virginia Hotel, where, in a
     darkened room, it was scarcely laid out, when the unfortunate and
     bereaved companion of the deceased arrived, at headlong speed, to
     find that all was over, and that she was a widow. Her grief and
     heart-piercing cries were terrible evidences of the depth of her
     attachment for her lost husband, and a considerable period elapsed
     before she could regain the command of her excited feelings.

There is something about the desperado-nature that is wholly
unaccountable--at least it looks unaccountable. It is this. The true
desperado is gifted with splendid courage, and yet he will take the most
infamous advantage of his enemy; armed and free, he will stand up before
a host and fight until he is shot all to pieces, and yet when he is under
the gallows and helpless he will cry and plead like a child. Words are
cheap, and it is easy to call Slade a coward (all executed men who do not
"die game" are promptly called cowards by unreflecting people), and when
we read of Slade that he "had so exhausted himself by tears, prayers and
lamentations, that he had scarcely strength left to stand under the fatal
beam," the disgraceful word suggests itself in a moment--yet in
frequently defying and inviting the vengeance of banded Rocky Mountain
cut-throats by shooting down their comrades and leaders, and never
offering to hide or fly, Slade showed that he was a man of peerless
bravery. No coward would dare that. Many a notorious coward, many a
chicken-livered poltroon, coarse, brutal, degraded, has made his dying
speech without a quaver in his voice and been swung into eternity with
what looked liked the calmest fortitude, and so we are justified in
believing, from the low intellect of such a creature, that it was not
moral courage that enabled him to do it. Then, if moral courage is not
the requisite quality, what could it have been that this stout-hearted
Slade lacked?--this bloody, desperate, kindly-mannered, urbane gentleman,
who never hesitated to warn his most ruffianly enemies that he would kill
them whenever or wherever he came across them next! I think it is a
conundrum worth investigating.

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Index Index

Prefactory
Contents
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII
Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXV
Chapter XXXVI
Chapter XXXVII
Chapter XXXVIII
Chapter XXXIX
Chapter XL
Chapter XLI
Chapter XLII
Chapter XLIII
Chapter XLIV
Chapter XLV
Chapter XLVI
Chapter XLVII
Chapter XLVIII
Chapter XLIX
Chapter L
Chapter LI
Chapter LII
Chapter LIII
Chapter LIV
Chapter LV
Chapter LVI
Chapter LVII
Chapter LVIII
Chapter LIX
Chapter LX
Chapter LXI
Chapter LXII
Chapter LXIII
Chapter LXIV
Chapter LXV
Chapter LXVI
Chapter LXVII
Chapter LXVIII
Chapter LXIX
Chapter LXX
Chapter LXXI
Chapter LXXII
Chapter LXXIII
Chapter LXXIV
Chapter LXXV
Chapter LXXVI
Chapter LXXVII
Chapter LXXVIII
Chapter LXXIX
Appendix

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