The saga of John F. Wheeler did not come to an end when Chester Ford deposited him in the county jail at Ukiah. The rest of the Mendocino Outlaws were still at large. Wheeler's connection to most of them went back many years. He, John Billings, Samuel Carr, and Harrison Brown had served overlapping sentences at San Quentin. George Gaunce was the only newcomer to crime, apparently falling in with the wrong crowd in the mining boomtown of Bodie.
Wheeler's whereabouts in the early 1860s prove a tad sketchy, but by 1865, he showed up in the Montana and Idaho territories. In a mid October, 1865, Idaho newspaper account Wheeler vouched for two “legitimate, licensed” proprietors of a saloon against a “well known rough” named Dutchy Lubeck.
Throughout 1866 he disappeared from notice. Whether John Wheeler rode with Cody or Custer in Kansas in that year is an intriguing possibility. The dead letter office in Virginia City, Montana Territory, placed him in the southwest corner of that future state in January of 1867. No surprise Wheeler didn't collect his letter, the snowstorms during that winter stopped the Central Pacific Railroad in its tracks. Passengers, equipped with snowshoes, carried the mail from marooned Wells, Fargo mail cars. Stagecoaches attempting the Salt Lake to Virginia City run crossed the mountain passes on skis tethered to the wheels, making the transport more sleigh than stage.
By the time spring arrived in 1867, the same grades muddied into quagmires. The Wells, Fargo & Co. stage proved an easy stop and rob for Wheeler and a small band of cohorts. One of those was John Billings, a squat fellow, three and a half inches shorter than the six feet tall, slender Wheeler, though if robbery victims looked closely they would have noticed both had hazel-colored eyes. Born to Irish parents in Louisiana, Billings was twenty-six at this time, two to three years senior to John Wheeler, Little was recorded of Billings early life, but he claimed to have ridden with the Pony Express. His courage, nerve under fire, and stamina served him as both an express rider and an outlaw. It was said he was the only man to have made Wheeler “take water,” when both stood observing each other over the barrels of their gunsights. The crisis abated after Wheeler asked for a parley. With all Billings' gumption, Wheeler proved the leader, the former a right hand pistelero.
An even more open and lawless territory than that around Virginia City, Montana, lay westward in Idaho, where the first town had been established in 1860. Wheeler, Billings and others, who may have included younger brother James Wheeler, moved westward with the mining boom in Idaho.
Before winter ushered itself in officially in December, 1867, temperatures dropped to near zero in the Idaho hills. Nevertheless, a deputy sheriff, John S. Ramey, and a compatriot named John Welch headed southwest from Lemhi on December 15th, making for Boise. Each possessed a pack animal along with their saddle horse. Deputy Ramey carried with him $3,200 in cash and coin as well as $500 in gold dust. Welch had $300 dollars of his own gold in a pouch. A man Ramey described as a half breed fell in and traveled with them until Ramey and Welch's suspicions mounted to a level that caused them to dodge the usual trail, lighting out through brush and high grass and leaving the so-called half breed behind. Some time later, not far from the stage stop at Malad Station, four men, with faces disguised beneath scarves and bandannas, rose from the thick grass beside the road. All four aimed rifles or shotguns at Welch and Deputy Ramey. Shouts to stand down brought the travelers to a halt and a dismount. A search of their persons and saddlebags ensued. The highwaymen relieved Welch and Ramey of nearly all their provisions, every grain of gold dust, and their money save a few coins a stout rogue tossed at their feet. Ramey picked up the pittance as graciously as the situation allowed and asked permission to sit his saddle once more.
A tall, slender thief waved a rifle toward Ramey's horse and hollered, “Git.” Another bandit let loose the rein, but no sooner did Ramey's boot touch stirrup than Welch set to cursing the stout hombre up and down until spittle flew from his lips as often as words. He fairly poked a finger in the breast of the gunman, screaming, “I know who you are. One of these days things will stand different and I'll get even with you.”
Nary batting an eye the stout robber replied, “No, my man, you will never see me again.” And at that he leveled his rifle and shot Welch dead on the road.
Ramey spurred his horse and, with no further report of gunshots, made his way to Malad Station. Upon return to the site of the crime an impromptu posse found no trace of the robbers. The Idaho Semi-Weekly World of Idaho City, Boise County reported, “He [Ramey] reached Boise City last Thursday, and it was proposed by persons there to raise a party to go in pursuit of the robbers. They [the bandits] all appeared to know [Deputy] Ramey. One of them was over six feet tall. They were armed with Henry and Spencer rifles and shotguns, and are likely to prove a difficult party to capture.”
In mid-January, with temperatures dropping to twenty-five below zero, Deputy Ramey accompanied Welch's brother along the Overland route in search of the deceased. They recovered his body, returning to Boise with it. The brother conveyed the corpse on to his home in Clackamas County, Oregon. The Idaho Semi-Weekly World recounted that the robbers and killer were thought to have vacated to Utah.
Wheeler wended his way along the rocky roads to Silver City, Idaho, at 6,200 feet elevation, where he spent a good deal of his time at the gambling tables of this boom town about seventy miles south of Boise. On the outskirts of Silver City, competition between two mining companies, the Ida Elmore and Golden Chariot, at a spot known as War Eagle Mountain, reached a combative pitch in March. The miners from the two competing companies dug furiously right next to one another until they broke through each others' shafts, resulting in full scale confrontation. A Boise newspaper reported on March 25, 1868, “A large number of well armed men are in both mines, well fortified and closely watching each other. Occasional shots are fired.”
Truth be told, in a single night one hundred fifty rounds were discharged. Eventually, random shots turned into underground battle. Gunfire killed the owner of the Golden Chariot and several others on either side lay mortally wounded.
On March 29th U.S. Marshal Orlando “Rube” Robbins took control of the disputed grounds at the behest of the territorial governor. Deputized to monitor the combatants was one John F. Wheeler.
By late May, Wheeler rode the other side of the law again. A Boise paper told much of the tale. “When a hundred miles beyond Port Neuf canyon [southeast of Pocatello near the Port Neuf River, a tributary of the Snake], three masked highwaymen stopped the stage, ordered the driver to throw out the Express box [there were actually two, one containing about $1,800, the other holding $10,000], and the passengers to alight, at the same time covering them with with their Henry rifles. The driver threw out the way box [with $1,800 in it]...”
One passenger handed over $300 in greenbacks, but a man named Mullaney “protested his innocence of anything valuable so stoutly, and offered himself for search with so earnest an air that the robbers believed him and let him slide unsearched. After getting this booty they ordered the driver to go on. By his cleverness the Express box with $10,000 was saved... Mullaney thinks they are the same who robbed Ramey and Welch... and killed the latter after having robbed him.”
* A month or so after this stage holdup, Wheeler tracked down Bigfoot. That fateful confrontation was recounted in an earlier edition of the AVA. A nominal subscription will gain you access to such archived material.
(More Old West tales of legends and common folk at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)