On October 15, 1879, four gunmen ambushed a constable's posse in the woods east of Mendocino. Two civilian members of the posse were killed and a third wounded. Evidence at the killers' camp led to the arrest of Dr. John F. Wheeler, the town dentist as the ringleader of the group. After an arraignment, and fearing a potential lynching, Deputy Sheriff John Flanagan, Constable Alf Nelson, and Mendocino Lumber Company Superintendent Chester Ford secreted Wheeler out of town in the middle of the night on a two seat wagon.
Along the way, the lawmen released Wheeler from his manacles. At a stop within the Ottoson house in Comptche, with Ford outside tending the horses, Wheeler had the opportunity to grab the officers' rifles, but apparently chose not to.
We rejoin the story in the wagon, on the Orr Springs Road, heading for Ukiah. Ford has a secret up his sleeve. Wheeler told of living as a captive of Plains Indians in the early 1850s.
The dentist hinted that he'd never seen his father again after the initial skirmish with the Sioux. Though the dentist never came right out and said it, two of his sisters, Caroline and Jane, both in their teens at the time, may have disappeared at the hands of the Indians.
Wheeler dropped that subject altogether as the chill night breeze mixed with horse sweat, spitting back at them while the wagon rolled on. The talkative prisoner described a brief return to California in the late 1850s and his short stay in Amador County. His mother, Sarah, and younger brother, James, had settled in Dardanelles Township within Jackson County, southern Oregon, so he headed north to be near them. Nearby lived sister Annie. More than a decade senior to John, by then Annie was Mrs. William LeBurr. Mr. LeBurr made his way in Oregon as both a merchant and a physician. Ford wondered if Wheeler received further lessons at dentistry as well as general medical practices under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, but there was no verbal confirmation.
Wheeler told Ford how he'd landed in Linn County, Oregon, specifically at the Forks of the Santiam River, a place called Kee's Mills, where indigenous people brought furs to trade. In mid-June, 1859, a twenty-five-year-old, named David Lilley had called Wheeler out over some trifling matter. Both young men were armed and the latter cautioned the former not to advance any closer. Lilley paid no heed, castigating the teenager. Wheeler warned against further advancement once more before he shot David Lilley dead.
However, Wheeler did not speak the name of this shooting victim because he had heard Lilley's brother settled on the Mendocino coast, though providence had kept the two apart. A wry smile crossed Wheeler's face while he recalled the judge at trial instructing the jury that the old common law rule was obsolete in Oregon; a man was not bound to retreat before using the means of defense in his hands in order to prevent bodily harm. The judge declared that if the jury believed Wheeler had good reason to suppose David Lilley would inflict great bodily injury upon him, then the killing was excusable homicide. The jury stepped out of the courtroom and almost as quickly returned with a verdict of “Not guilty.”
The horses trotted together at such a rhythmic pace Constable Nelson lay down in the bed of the wagon, his head tucked beneath the second seat, his legs curled behind. His face rested on a layer of straw. One hand loosely clutched his rifle while also tugging his jacket over an ear. Ford glanced back and noticed Deputy Flanagan ready to nod off too, though he kept a grip on the Winchester in his lap.
Wheeler grinned as he recalled that his defense attorney in the Oregon shooting was none other than George Henry Williams, who had already served as Chief Justice of the Oregon Territory and as a circuit court judge before returning to private practice in 1858.
Chester Ford, and just about everyone who could read a newspaper, knew that Williams had gone on to serve as Attorney General of the United States under President Grant. In addition, they knew Williams had been forced to resign after it was rumored he or his wife had accepted $30,000 to drop federal litigation against a New York mercantile house. It was also common knowledge that Williams defended one of the accused members of the so-called “Whiskey Ring” that further stained the reputation of Grant's administration.
Ford wondered if Wheeler knew Williams had been one of the Republican point men in the disputed vote count in Florida during the 1876 Presidential election. Wheeler responded that he had other matters on his mind at the time.
Deputy Flanagan yawned from the back seat. Ford kept his right hand on the rein and his left in his coat pocket. Blowing hot breaths into his palms, Wheeler brought up a name he thought Ford might recognize: John G. Howell. Ford remembered Howell as the editor of the Russian River Flag newspaper in the late 1860s. Wheeler took a look back at the snoozing Nelson and said Howell had served as constable in the Bannock Precinct of Boise, in Idaho Territory, earlier in the early 1860s. “In 1865, Howell got himself appointed Sheriff of Alturas County by the territorial governor. Yours truly, deputied for him there.” Wheeler added, “County as big as two or three eastern seaboard states.”
Ford asked when Wheeler had arrived in Idaho. Wheeler responded that he'd gone there in the fall of 1863 along with his then eighteen-year-old brother and Dr. Le Burr. He glanced at the handcuffs still lying on the wagon seat between them and challenged Ford to check up on the fact, noting that the Boise News had called them “Siskiyou Countians,” from northern California.
Wheeler renewed his claim to have been an Indian scout and to have known both George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. Apparently this occurred after the War Between the States while Custer served at Fort Riley, Kansas, and Bill Cody was employed as a scout at Fort Ellsworth, Kansas, one hundred seventy miles west.
With the middle of the night so cold the horse's sweat turned to tiny crystals on their flanks, their breaths billowed back at Ford and Wheeler like smoke rings from huge cigars. Both men glanced over their shoulders to see that Deputy Flanagan had curled up asleep on the wagon's back seat.
Ford brought up Charley Sheppard identifying the dentist from his years in San Quentin, inquiring about what circumstances led to his imprisonment. Wheeler's response sounded evasive, along the lines that he was the victim of a frame up.
Glimmers of dawn sneaked over Cow Mountain, to the east, as the wagon began its descent toward Ukiah Valley. Wheeler brought his comments back to the recent shootings in the woods, looking squarely at Ford, “If they had any evidence against me, I would never be taken to jail.”
He turned again to gaze at Flanagan and Nelson. “Look at those guards. If I wanted to get away I would pull this team over the grade, we would roll down together, and I'd be free.”
Ford held to his secret, his left hand, jammed in his coat pocket, fingers wrapped around a revolver. His thumb itched to cock the hammer all the way back. “Pull them over if you want. I'll take my chances.”
Wheeler kept talking along similar lines all the way down to Ukiah, but he didn't act out the threat. Flanagan and Nelson woke. Ford never pulled his revolver into sight. The three Mendocino men delivered Wheeler to the county jail, Ford found a hotel, then slept most of the day and night away before heading back to the coast the next day.
(More tales of Mendocino County's olden days at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)