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Racing towards a narrow escape
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Racing towards a narrow escape

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Back in the Gold Rush days, when road agents and desperadoes ran rampant along the lonely roads of the territory, a man’s horse was often the only thing standing between safety and certain death. It was a well-known fact that a swift horse might just save your life, and quick wits and a fast horse are a couple of the key ingredients in the following story. But it was an unexpected sympathetic gesture towards a well-known outlaw that gave the intended victim the chance to tell his death-defying tale of escape. All of the dialogue in this story comes directly from N. P. Langford’s "Vigilante Days and Ways," which is one of the most compelling histories of Montana’s lawless days.

Charles Broadwater was an honest, hardworking young man who entered the territory just as the rich discoveries at Bannack and Virginia City were gaining the attention of prospectors working their trade throughout the Rocky Mountains. In the winter of 1862 this portion of western Montana was actually part of the Idaho Territory, and Charles Broadwater was busy laying out a town site near Deer Lodge, where he and a partner had erected a couple of rough-hewn cabins. At about the same time, a pair of ruffians known as Charlie Reeves and Bill Moore were banished from Bannack for shooting into an Indian encampment on the outskirts of town. A Miner’s Court found the two men guilty of manslaughter, but failed to make a case for hanging them, due to an assortment of intimidation tactics brazenly displayed by their "comrades in arms."

After their banishment, the two convicted desperadoes were seen camping in the willows along Deer Lodge Creek, where they were barely surviving the cold winter winds. When William Augustus Moore suddenly came down with Mountain Fever, he was allowed to move into the extra log cabin at the new town site, where Charles Broadwater somehow managed to nurse him back to health. Directly afterwards, word reached Deer Lodge that the two exiled men had been exonerated and their banishment had been lifted, whereupon they both promptly moved back to Bannack. These same two scoundrels had been involved in a famous shootout in a bar in Bannack just the year before, where a dog and a man were mortally wounded. Several others were also shot in the fray, none of whom were actually among the intended targets. Not much is actually known of the previous whereabouts of Bill Moore, but Charlie Reeves had drifted into the region from Elk City, Idaho, along with Henry Plummer, the notorious gang-leader and Sheriff of Bannack.

The following spring found Charles Broadwater buying cattle in Deer Lodge and taking them to market in Bannack, where they brought a pretty penny feeding the throngs of hungry miners who were frantically digging for the precious yellow metal. Broadwater often made thousands of dollars in gold dust from the sale of his beeves, and the ruthless gang of robbers led by Sheriff Henry Plummer took notice of all the riches flowing through their rowdy little mining camp. Broadwater had been chosen as their latest victim, and probably would have never lived to tell about it, if it hadn’t been for that momentary generous act of kindness he bestowed on Bill Moore during the preceding winter. Broadwater had not only nursed Moore back to health, but he had even provided him with a horse to ride back into Bannack after his exile had been repealed! Even though Moore eventually proved to be as inherently evil as any of the other members of the gang, he still felt some kind of debt to Broadwater, and pulling him aside, he discreetly warned him of the impending doom that awaited him on the road to Deer Lodge.

“It’s for your own safety, Broad, and there is not another man in the country for whom I’d take the risk. But you were my friend when I needed friendship, you saved my life, gave me food and shelter and care, and I can never forget to be grateful. But you must pledge your honor not to betray me. I give you friendly warning that there is a band of road agents here that know of your having received a large quantity of gold dust during the past three days. They are informed of the time of your intended departure for Deer Lodge, and intend to waylay and murder you on the way, and corral your gold. You are ‘spotted’ for slaughter. My advice to you is to leave town secretly, and to be constantly on your guard, and under no circumstances let anyone, not even your most intimate friend, know when you will leave.” Broadwater swore to keep the desperado’s secret, and innocently told his scurrilous friend that he intended on leaving Bannack early the next morning. “Why, you fool! There you go shooting off your mouth to me the first thing. Didn’t I just caution you not to tell anyone? And in less than a minute you tell me just what you’re going to do!”

By now Broadwater was beginning to realize his sticky situation, and he silently made up his mind to leave Bannack that evening instead. After setting out, he spent the night sleeping on the ground with a lariat tied firmly to his wrist, forming a secure bond with his trusted horse. Pulling out well before daylight, he made his way across the Continental Divide and in to the Deer Lodge Valley. As day broke, he caught a glimpse of the sun shining far off in the distance upon Mount Powell, just a few miles west of his home in Deer Lodge. He suddenly felt an agreeable sense of relief rushing over him, but then, just as he rounded a bend in the road, he saw two men sitting by a campfire along the trail. His joyous feelings instantly turned to dismay when he realized that these were the very men that Moore had warned him about!

George Ives and Johnny Cooper were obviously surprised to see their victim arriving so early on the scene and Broadwater recognized the fact that he had taken the two highwaymen off balance. He also noticed that their horses were grazing on a hillside a couple of miles away. He modestly declined their generous offer to join them, and kept going as they courteously asked him to wait for them to gather their horses, so that they could all ride into town together. They warned him that there were road agents lurking along the trail, and he would be much safer if they all rode together. Broadwater knew the true purpose behind their offer, and claimed to be in too much of a hurry, telling them, “Get up your horses, and you can overtake me on the hill.” He knew that he could not afford to show any undue concern, so he dismounted and slowly made his way to the top of the hill, while the ruffians tried frantically to pack up their camp and gather their horses. Once he had cleared the hilltop and was well out of sight of the outlaws, Broadwater put the spurs to his trusty steed and made a hurried attempt to get some real-estate between himself and his executioners.

There was only one small ranch at the time, lying between Divide and Deer Lodge, and Broadwater knew that his only hope was to get there before he was overtaken by the two freebooters. When he looked back behind him he saw a cloud of dust, which proved that the highwaymen were in hot pursuit and steadily gaining ground on him. His horse was nearly played out before Broadwater caught sight of the little cabin at the ranch, and he spurred the horse on with renewed enthusiasm in a last-ditch effort to save his skin. At one point he felt the heavy burden of the thirty pounds of gold dust he carried, and imagined the hot lead from Ives and Cooper’s six-shooters flying towards him at every turn. Just as he came up to the door of the cabin, his horse fell over with exhaustion, but the worthy steed had faithfully carried him to safety, and had undoubtedly saved his life. As he was removing the saddle from his spent horse, Ives and Cooper rode up. The chase had left their horses sweaty and frothing at the mouths. “Well, you beat us on the ride,” George Ives said to Broadwater, as he dismounted. Broadwater calmly replied that he figured they must have had some trouble gathering up their horses, or they would have surely overtaken him on the hill otherwise!

The seemingly friendly banter between the two parties revealed nothing of what was really going on in the minds of the other. Broadwater knew that the situation was still a desperate one, and that it would take all of his skill and cunning to come out alive through the final leg of the journey. The two outlaws were busy turning their horses loose to graze on the hillside, while Charles Broadwater hatched his daring scheme of escape. He remembered that the rancher possessed one of the fastest horses in the country, and he quickly explained the situation to the owner while they were alone, stressing the fact that his life depended on having that fresh horse under him to finish the trip to Deer Lodge. Luckily, the rancher was game for the plan, and went to fetch the speedy horse from his herd under the pretense of having to bring in some of his stock that had wandered off. When he brought the horse down to the cabin to saddle it up, Broadwater pretended to bargain for the use of it, promising to return it afterwards in fine shape. The rancher played his part well, and appeared to reluctantly consent to the use of the horse, seeing as how there were two reliable witnesses present who could attest to the fact that he had promised to return him in good order.

“Hold on, Broad,” said Ives, as Broadwater quickly threw on his saddle and prepared to make his escape. “This is no way to leave a fellow. Wait till we get up our horses, and we’ll ride on together. It’ll be more sociable.” Of course, Broadwater kindly declined to wait around for the murderous duo before he started out, but he did tell them that if they got up their horses, and rode fast enough, they would surely overtake him along the way. Spurring on one of the fastest horses in the territory, Charles Broadwater breezed in to the relative safety of Deer Lodge well before the ill-famed and contemptible duo of Cooper and Ives.

Charles A. Broadwater went on to become one of Montana’s first self-made millionaires, achieving his greatest success in the capital city of Helena. George Ives was later found guilty of murder in Virginia City, and he immediately swung for his crime. Johnny Cooper was severely wounded in a fracas with an outlaw named Alec Carter, who accused him of stealing his pistol, and then shot him three times. They both met their match when vigilantes stormed into the rowdy town of Hell Gate, just west of Missoula.

The Ravalli Republic is teaming up with Ravalli County Museum to bring you a series of local history and photo features. If you would like more information on today’s subject, please contact the Ravalli County Museum at www.ravallimuseum.org. You can also find it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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