By Crawdad Nelson
We have long foreseen the present state of things and have been well satisfied, and so expressed it repeatedly, that it could be averted by placing the Indians on the Reservations or by extermination: in other words, by removing them from the range they now inhabit, either alive or dead.
-Austin Wiley, Editor, Humboldt Times. September 1858
There was no secret, but everyone was in on the secret; everybody knew the truth, but nobody could remember it. The Army estimated the number of victims but such a job was near impossible given the chaos of what had been left behind. They didn’t lay blame on any particular person, nor would the forces of municipal law provide the least clarity.
The bodies had been found broken in every conceivable way: dismembered, partially burnt, tossed this way and that and into the tidal marsh where marine predators had feasted. The blood stood for days in bare pools on saturated ground, thickening in the mild winter sun, rippling thickly when light winds blew, frosting over at night. The island was only the biggest scene; the killers had moved quickly and worked hard at two other camps nearby.
A few days later, the Humboldt Times surprisingly came out with an editorial expressing shame for what had happened and questioning the morality of the entire Humboldt settlement. Editor Austin Wiley had briefly left the paper in the hands of a young reporter, Bret Harte, who dissented from the popular view. Later that day, a mob gathered outside the Times’ office, to deal with Harte. There was much drinking and shouting. Everyone was there; if they weren’t there, they knew who was. They had all agreed it was over and done with and not to speak of it. They agreed equally that, however grim or displeasing it might have looked, it needed doing. The stockmen used colorful, disrespectful metaphors alluding to the efficiency of culling, the farmers spoke of plowing things under, the timbermen nodded and spoke gravely of dead and wasted wood. Those of deep religious feeling, that is, most, found spiritual and doctrinal justification to go with their economic theories .
William Sykes could see the fear in Harte’s eyes when he stood on the balcony addressing the growing crowd. Harte, understanding the gravity of things, called for reason and sanity, which only made the citizens, all of whom were otherwise respectable people, except the thieves and those who found pleasure in killing, angry. They shouted insults and defamed his ancestry; they called him a fool.
The butchery and savagery of the event had required the services of several confirmed sadists, but such qualities were valued rather than deplored on the frontier. Guns were fired into the air and some, women as well as men, asked for the right to cut his throat, or gut him.
Harmon Painter nudged his mount up onto the wooden sidewalk, loosed a lariat, and tossed it over a post on the balcony. He backed the horse to tauten the line, which vibrated ominously, then sat watching Harte speak.
Painter represented the majority. I done give up on compassion, he complained, as he gave a hard yank and the balcony shuddered. Another lariat shot out of the crowd of mounted vigilantes, then another. The loops settled on exposed posts and quickly found good purchase. Cowboys handed rope to eager hands on the ground, and soon the balcony was creaking. Joints began to part, nails to withdraw and fly.
Someone loudly suggested drawing and quartering Harte; someone else wanted to cook him.
The cattlemen snarled at him like wolves or bears after destroying the front window of the building to let themselves in. The frame sang and rocked as the mob surged and reveled in its power. Harte saw that he was doomed, but chose to give in rather than die in vain defense. He handed over a loaded pistol, but had never threatened to use it. Regardless, they handled him roughly before bringing him outside.
The crowd lost interest in the building as the newspaperman stumbled forth. He looked as if he expected to die and hoped it would be quick. His nose bled and some teeth were gone. His captors had him by the wrists and had a loop around the neck, cinched to the point of discomfort. They kneed him in the back to force him into the muddy street, and the crowd parted enough to let him move.
You ready to die? they asked.
He said nothing. He held himself steady and with a fixed gaze sought faces of people he knew by name or otherwise. All the eyes turned toward him filled with hatred and disgust for his opinion, for his compassion. Nevertheless, that was his final appeal, the only possible appeal.
They tied his wrists behind him and found a mule nearby that could be spared briefly. He was lifted onto its bare back and sat amid those who planned to kill him. He realized that the few people he knew who weren’t prone and willing to violence either didn’t know what was happening or knew better than to get caught in the crossfire.
He sat the mule’s bony back while the animal glared at the eyes nearest and bared its teeth at men it recognized. Harte wore an old pair of wool trousers under a loose shirt, both passably clean but rumpled, and black leather boots. He had, as the citizens feared, been disturbed at work, preparing a new edition with further elaboration of his unpopular views.
How do you want it, Harte? More guns were fired into the still night air. They sounded hollow to Harte, but no less dangerous. He prepared for the worst, still hoping for a friendly or at least neutral set of eyes to meet his, but each man and woman, even children barely old enough to hold jobs, stared at him with cold eyes, plainly willing, clearly motivated.
At last he saw James Hat, whose half-breed son sat behind him on a huge draft horse. They stood near the crowd, but a step back from it. Hat finally fired his own weapon into the air to gain the attention of everyone there. He turned the bead toward Painter, then back to Sykes, as he spoke to the crowd.
Anybody wants to get to Paradise today, why just let me know. I don’t mind comin’ with ye but if that newspaper boy dies here today he won’t do it alone.
Shore as hell, some yelled back at him, That’s all right, said others, but he sat unharmed, scanning them with the muzzle of his rifle, then looking back at Harte, on the mule.
What the hell is this, shouted a voice although it seemed the shouter knew very well what it was. Heads turned and the mob saw Colonel Grant, a little bleary, in his uniform jacket with the breast undone. Even incomplete, he conveyed sufficient gravity and official authority to impose restraint on the crowd.
You okay in there boy? He shouted at Harte, who said Yes, sir but I would appreciate a wet cloth for my face. I’m spoiling this shirt and staining a mule.
Yer shittin’ yet pants too, ain’t you pissant? yelled a wit, but Harte had maintained his bowel.
By now other soldiers inferior to Grant were arriving, looking as if they had been disturbed in some act of fraternity with civilians. The mob shouted angrily at Harte and reminded him that to remain in the area past this moment would displease them so much that even the US Army couldn’t preserve him.
Surviving Indians had done what they could to bury and remove bodies, but blood remained standing in pools for days.
Crawdad Nelson has worked as a freelance journalist, poet, and editor for over twenty years. His work appears in many small press and alternative publications. Everyone Was There is from the collection 1,000 Days in Murder City, which explores the humanitarian and moral implications of massacre in the process of colonization.