Have you ever had a double-barreled shotgun pointed at your chest from
just a few feet away? How about two shotguns, each held unwaveringly
fixed on the center of your chest in the steady hands of men who had
nothing left to lose? Think about how you might react to this scenario
as you now close your eyes and let yourself travel back in time to
find yourself sitting on to the hard bouncing seat of a crowded
stagecoach traveling over a rutted dirt road just about a hundred and
twenty or so years ago.
Riding a stagecoach to the town of Badger in the Sierra Nevada
foothills just west of General Grant National Park was a slow journey
in the 1890’s – slow, hot, dusty, and usually uneventful. The Badger
stagecoach was hardly the stuff of Wild West Legend. It didn’t carry
boxes of gold; there were no bundles of cash headed to the logging
camps as payroll; the locked Wells Fargo box which we’ve all heard was
stashed under the driver’s seat usually wasn’t even there, simply
because there was never anything of value on this line which required
locking up. The Badger stage was a milk run, ferrying passengers from
the smaller communities of the foothills, such as Badger and Dunlap,
down into the larger valley towns such as Visalia, and then back up
again. It was generally a long and tedious journey for the passengers,
and even more so for the poor horses. So imagine the surprise of the
stagecoach passengers when, one hot summer day in 1893, two men
stepped into the roadway in front of the slow moving stage and leveled
shotguns at the driver. They didn’t have to order him to stop – the
four long barrels loaded with Remington buckshot implied without
question that the sweating team of horses would be brought to an
immediate halt. The two men wore no masks and did not care who might
recognize them, because they were already wanted for more serious
crimes than this. They were on a mission; a mission to kill a man.
Their names were Chris Evans and John Sontag. If one were to believe
the Southern Pacific Railroad, then you would call these men train
robbers. If, however, one were to believe Evans and Sontag, then you’d
know that they were in fact two men who had been unremittingly
persecuted by the Southern Pacific, framed for crimes they did not
commit, and hounded into hiding by men seeking a bounty placed on
their heads by Southern Pacific Railroaders who wanted to make an
example of them. They had had enough, and decided to exercise this
opportunity to demonstrate a somewhat more aggressive defense of their
case. To use modern terminology, they were becoming proactive.
Chris Evans and John Sontag had most recently been farmers near the
town of Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley. The Southern Pacific
Railroad had tried their best to implicate Evans in the Mussel Slough
Massacre, but although he had many friends at Mussel Slough, Evans and
his family had not even been living in that area at the time of the
battle. Nevertheless, the Southern Pacific had harangued Evans and his
family with a dogged determination, setting their army of railroad
detectives to watching him and his farm and his family day and night.
It was harassment, plain and simple, but the Southern Pacific owned
enough of the state and its politicians to get away with whatever they
wanted. When they eventually told the sheriff that they wanted Evans
and Sontag arrested for train robbery – even though they had no proof
that either man had ever been near one of their trains – their orders
carried enough weight that no proof was needed. So Evans and Sontag
became outlaws, retreating from the valley farm into the Sierra Nevada
Mountains for safety from men hungry to cash in on the $10,000.00
reward put on their heads by the Southern Pacific.
One of the Southern Pacific Railroad detectives who had been watching
Evans’ farm was a man by the name of Will Smith. In fact, Smith had
been watching the family so closely that he’d decided that he was in
love with Eva, the eldest of Evan’s children, and wanted to marry her.
But Eva, even though she was only a young lady of fourteen years, was
also a young lady who knew her own mind. She told Smith off in no
uncertain terms, saying she would have nothing to do with Southern
Pacific men in general, and with him in particular. Smith soon became
the butt of jokes from his fellow detectives as well as from local law
enforcement, and this only served to darken his determination to see
Chris Evans behind bars.
So, when the Southern Pacific issued orders to the sheriff that Evans
and Sontag be arrested, Will Smith was the railroad detective chosen
to accompany the sheriff on that mission. But it was a mission which
was only to end in further humiliation for both the sheriff and Smith,
as Evans stood up to them both, ordering them out of his home and
backing that order up with gunfire when they were slow to obey. Will
Smith, even though he was armed, turned and ran.
Several weeks later Smith once again proved his cowardice. At the
Battle of Young’s Cabin, when Evans and Sontag took on an entire posse
which had caught up with them, Smith turned and wheeled his horse out
of the clearing and away from the gunfire, choosing not to take his
chances with men who had ample reserves of both courage and
determination – two character traits which he apparently was
completely lacking. After Evans and Sontag had escaped and the gun
battle was over, the sheriff took Smith to task for running away.
“I’ve got plenty of fight in me!” Smith defended himself.
“You must have plenty of fight in you,” was the sheriff’s quick
retort, “because I haven’t seen any of it come out yet!”
All of this only served to make Smith feel even more bitterly toward
Evans and his entire family, and he never lost an opportunity to
vilify them. One night he sneaked on to the Evans farm near Visalia
and buried a sack of silver coins in the yard. Then he returned with a
posse to search the premises, dug up the coins, and presented them as
proof that Evans was a train robber.
“As if I’d be stupid enough to bury a sack of money in my own front
yard,” was Chris Evans retort when he heard of this.
So to say that there was Bad Blood between Chris Evans and Will Smith
would have been a considerable, even humorous, understatement. They
both wanted each other’s blood; Evans because he felt he’d been the
object of unrighteous persecution; Smith because he’d been humiliated
several times at Evans’ hand. Now, in the hot foothills outside of
Badger, it was going to be Chris Evans’ turn to try to collect on that
Evans and Sontag were not in the habit of holding up stagecoaches, but
they had heard from one of their many friends in the mountains that a
certain railroad detective by the name of Will Smith had purchased a
ticket on the Badger stage that day. So they had decided to meet that
stage outside of town for a sort of Meet & Greet – outlaw style.
As the stage pulled to a stop before the two shotgun-wielding men the
driver tied the reins and started to get down, but Sontag knew the man
and told him to stay in the driver’s box. The driver also knew Sontag,
and sat back with a visible relief that, whatever was going to happen
here today, he was apparently going to be left out of it.
As the dust settled Evans looked over the passengers. Will Smith was
not among them. Smith was indeed in that area of the foothills -
supposedly looking for Evans and Sontag - and had in fact purchased a
ticket for that stage but at the last minute he had refused to get on
board when a colleague informed him that Evans and Sontag were
reported to be nearby. Apparently Smith didn’t mind looking for the
outlaws; he just didn’t want to actually find them.
Even though the trap for Will Smith was a bust, Evans still held out
some hope that perhaps there might be another detective hidden amongst
the passengers, so he announced to them that he and Sontag were
hunting for railroad detectives; that anyone on board who was not a
detective would be safe from harm, but that any detective found
amongst the passengers would very soon be lying face down in the dirt.
He then signaled one man who looked suspiciously like a detective to
descend from the coach and to empty his pockets. Shaking all over and
clamping down hard so as not to wet his trousers, the man slowly
approached the two outlaws and began to eloquently express his
sympathy for Evans and Sontag, adding his disgust at the way the
railroad treated honest people. He topped it off by saying that he had
prayed for Evans and Sontag while at church the previous Sunday - a
bit over the top, perhaps; but the man was obviously afraid that urine
wasn’t going to be the only fluid soon to be leaking from his body.
Evans assured the man that he would be safe unless there was something
on his person linking him to the Southern Pacific, and ordered him to
empty his pockets. He did, but the contents yielded only such ordinary
things as keys, money and tobacco. Obviously disappointed, Evans told
him to take his stuff and get back on the stage. When the surprised
passenger asked if Evans wasn’t at least going to take his money and
watch, Evans turned to him and calmly explained that he wasn’t a
thief; that he had never robbed a train and that he wasn’t about to
rob a stage passenger. He was here to kill detectives, which was in
his opinion a just pursuit, but he would never stoop to robbery.
Relieved, the man got back on board the stage.
One by one the other passengers stepped down and emptied their
pockets; one by one they were found to be innocent travelers and
allowed to return to their seats. When all had passed the test Sontag
nodded to the driver and he flicked the reins at the horses, and as he
passed by the two outlaws he touched his fingers to the brim of his
hat in respect, or in thanks, or both.
It was the Southern Pacific Railroad who had made Evans and Sontag
famous by accusing them of train robbery and by putting an exorbitant
reward on their heads, but it was exploits such as this non-robbery of
a stage and the courteous treatment of its passengers which endeared
the two men to a large portion of Californians; deeds which portrayed
them as victims while at the same time displaying their own honesty
and integrity, even as fugitives. So it was no wonder that these two
fugitives found numerous citizens willing to help them, to shelter
them, to flaunt the Southern Pacific and its private army. And it was
no wonder that one of the most famous men in California decided to
seek them out in search of an interview.
Joaquin Miller had published several books of poetry and by the early
1890’s his reputation as a writer was well established not only in
California but also throughout the United States. He was also
especially popular in England. For several years he had been living in
Oakland, and as the epic struggle of Evans and Sontag unfolded in the
California newspapers Miller announced that he was going to sojourn up
into the Sierra Nevada to look for them. He was, after all, known as
the Poet of the Sierra after the success of his 1871 book, Song of the
Sierra. So, when Miller traveled down to Visalia and then made his way
all alone into the mountains, the story was on the front page of
newspapers all over the state. He first made a courtesy call at the
Evans’ farm in Visalia to pay his respects to Evans’ wife and
children, who gave him letters to give to Chris, should Miller
actually succeed in finding the outlaw. Miller then made his way up to
the Sequoia Mill, where Evans had many friends, and then disappeared
alone into the mountains on his quest. When he returned after many
days alone in the wilderness he said that he had met with Evans, and
soon published the highlights of the interview.
Miller couldn’t have been more lavish in his praise of Chris Evans. He
said that a meeting had been arranged for the two of them at the base
of the largest of the Giant Sequoia trees. As Evans and Sontag were
known to range freely between Redwood Canyon, the town of Millwood,
and Sampson’s Flat, this could well have been the General Grant Tree
beneath which they sat. Miller then went on to describe how he and
Evans had spent the better part of an entire day resting and talking
at the base of the tree. He praised Evans as being a philosopher equal
to Socrates. He described Evans as being a persecuted hero who was
nonetheless at peace with himself and with the world, and the nuggets
of wisdom he imparted would be studied by students of philosophy for
generations. Miller said that, as the day drew to a close and the time
for parting drew nigh, Evans bid him to wait for one more moment
before leaving. Then he went to the base of another giant Sequoia
nearby and plucked a Snow Flower from the ground and brought it back
to Miller into whose hand he pressed it, entreating him to take it
back to his wife, Molly, as a token of his undying love. Then Evans
disappeared into the trees.
When, months later, Chris Evans read this story in an old newspaper as
he sat in jail, the guards heard his laughter echo out from the cells.
The entire story was a fake – Joaquin Miller had made up the entire
thing for his own benefit while at the same time he succeeded in
bringing the definition of the term ‘Poetic License’ to a whole new
Years later Miller’s close friend, the writer Ambrose Bierce, observed
of the Poet of the Sierra: “He can not, or will not, tell the truth,
but he never tells a malicious falsehood.”
The Poet of the Sierra had indeed invented a great yarn, a story which
magnified his own reputation as a writer and daring adventurer, as
well as elevated the Legend of Evans and Sontag to even higher levels
of wonder and respect. It proved to be a beneficial ploy to both men,
although Evans had nothing to do with it.
So the moral of this story would apparently be that, when either
making history or writing it, one should never let the actual facts of
an event get in the way of telling a good story.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
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