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The Mendocino Outlaws: Dr. Wheeler’s Escape

John Wheeler and James Anthony escaped from the county jail in Ukiah in the dinner hour of November 7, 1879. They employed a Babbitt metal key to unlock their cells and a door to the sheriff's office then dropped out a window to the street, walked a block north to a livery stable, where they procured two horses for a dash north out of town.

That Friday proved an exceptionally dark night. Clouds covered the moon and stars, depriving the fugitives of even a glimmer of light to help guide them. At a crossroads near the north end of Redwood Valley, Wheeler's horse veered dangerously close to a fence, spun about, and tumbled into a ditch. Man and beast seemingly emerged unscathed, but the horse reverted to instinct and headed back toward its Ukiah stable home. The escapees, thus missed their chance to turn east then north for Potter Valley and a possible trail to freedom beyond.

Wheeler and Anthony let their confused mounts carry them south for about three miles before they rode straight into a five man posse. Wheeler passed four of them off to the side before a fifth man, Paul Boulon (husband of the woman who had first sounded the jailbreak alarm) halted him with drawn revolver. 

Boulon demanded a name. The Mendocino dentist said, “Brown, of Potter.”

“Who is that other man?”

“A stranger, who just fell in with me,” Wheeler responded.

Several yards away in the darkness, a member of the posse commanded, “Strike a match.”

A fellow posse man obeyed then in the match light said, “It's Jim Anthony.”

Anthony raised his arms, “It's all up, boys. You've got me.”

Boulon continued to point a pistol at his Mr. Brown, who exclaimed, “For God's sake, don't rob me. I'm a poor man with nine children.”

Wheeler nudged his horse a step or two away. “My wife is sick. I must get to Ukiah to fetch a doctor.”

With that he heeled his mount and shouted, “Don't shoot,” and galloped away.

Boulon sat the saddle stunned for a moment then hollered, “Come on boys, let's get after Wheeler.”

Two others galloped along with Boulon in hot pursuit. Wheeler headed west initially. He realized his mount's tendency to head for home and leaped from the saddle. He landed on a twisting ankle, but lay low listening to the sprinting clippity clop turn south toward Ukiah. The shout of distant voices seemed to follow until the sounds of hooves grew fainter, diminishing to nothing more than the whisper of the night breeze on his neck hairs.

Wheeler crawled to his feet. He stumbled westward past what his nose told him were the shavings from a lumber mill. He staggered through mesquite, tumbled across gullies with the recognition that not only had he twisted an ankle but the same leg throbbed from where the horse landed on him earlier. Wincing and limping he made his way for what he reckoned another mile beyond the mill until he stumbled upon an abandoned cabin in a shallow hollow.

He made his way inside and shoved the dragging door shut. Locating a wood stove, he thought better of lighting a fire, lest the authorities spot the smoke. Devoid of a bed or cot, Wheeler lay down in the warmest corner of the small abode and pulled his collar up. Sleep proved a hard thing to capture. His thoughts turned to the journey that led him to this chilly fate.

The deputies had kept Samuel Carr away from him in the jailhouse. He wondered how much information that fool had spilled to make his own lot easier. No angel himself, ten years or so before Carr and his partner killed a Frenchman outside their Kearny Street bar in San Francisco. 

The two saloon keepers noticed the Frenchman purchased his first drink with a shiny $20 gold piece. Presuming there may be more where that came from, they spiked one of his beers with a lethal amount of tobacco. After closing time, they dragged the prone man to a back alley, fleeced his pockets of personal trinkets, and the grand total of $7.50.

The location of the body did not fool the local constabulary. The method of demise and other evidence led them straight to the salon's proprietors. A jury found them guilty and three and a half months after the misdeed Carr landed in San Quentin.

Even in the dreary dankness of the little cabin, Wheeler could chuckle at the irony of Carr's arrival at the prison on Valentine's Day.  He still wondered why a murderer like Carr received parole after seven years, only weeks apart from his own in 1877. He could have taught the wayward barkeep a thing or two about delivering an undetectable lethal send off. In his years of practicing dentistry and medicine within San Quentin, a practice that knocked two years off his sentence, he'd dispatched any number of Chinese with a goodbye dose. Mark the patients death, “inflammation of the internal organs,” and call in the corpse removal crew.

Carr might tell the law about the Chinese squealing in his dental chair in San Quentin, but Wheeler didn't worry about that. After all, the voters had just re-written the state constitution that very year to blame everything but rainy days on the Chinese. Back in Mendocino, last August, when neighbors saw a figure scurry from the dentist's back yard after dark, he merely mentioned that he thought it was a Chinese prowler and every white man in town accepted his need to take a pot shot. No one suspected the truth of the matter, the night caller had been his old San Quentin mate and fellow Missouri native, Harrison Brown.  

By the time dawn peeked into the cabin, Wheeler's stomach growled. The cabin did not possess a spot of food. Making sure no searchers patrolled nearby, the fugitive ventured out. All he could safely gather in this desolate area were handfuls of acorns and manzanita berries. From his days as an Indian captive he knew such things could keep him alive, but they didn't satisfy his need for protein.

Nether his leg or ankle had broken. However, both ached to high heaven. With no sign of a posse nearby, he hunkered down for the day.

He wondered how far away Brown had traveled. Jail scuttlebutt  put Brown, Billings, and Gaunce far over the hills to the north and east. At San Quentin in the 1870s, Dr. Wheeler called Brown by his nickname Hal or the diminutive H.E. During the 1860s Brown rustled horses in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Lawmen affected his arrest in 1867, but he skipped bail. For a time he rode with fellow desperado Bill Oiler along California's “Lost Coast” in the company of a wily character known as “Grizzly Bill.” By 1870, Brown rode alone. Sonoma County's sheriff captured him at Oroville in March of that year. He did not escape that arrest. His subsequent trial and conviction sent him to San Quentin not long after Samuel Carr's arrival.

The shadows of the coast range to the west covered the cabin before dusk fully enveloped it. Wheeler resolved against another near freezing night. He bet on darkness shrouding the smoke from a fire and collected as much wood as his weary body and stiffening legs allowed. Warming in front of the stove, his spirits buoyed. Perhaps he could procure another horse and ride free to the east or north, maybe catch up with his old comrade, John Billings. They'd known each other in the Montana Territory in the early 1860s. Billings claimed to have ridden with the Pony Express. No stranger to firearms, he possessed scars from belt to shoulder attesting to his unflinching gall in a gunfight.

When Wheeler wasn't sheriffing and gambling money sifted away, he and Billings had robbed many a stagecoach throughout Montana and Idaho together. Gold or silver from the mines popping up all over those territories made the best haul, near impossible to trace back to a definitive owner.

True, Billings' cold-blooded killing of an Idaho miner shocked Wheeler, but the gunman proved his loyalty time and again. They'd gone to San Quentin together for the same stagecoach robbery in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. If he questioned Billings' good sense, it was only for opening the U.S. mail pouch, making the Blue Mountain caper a federal offense.

Wheeler slept soundly that night for hours at a stretch, occasionally waking to stoke the fire and rub his throbbing leg. When he rose at daylight, the leg hurt just as badly, if not more, than the night before. His stomach gurgled in rebellion to the acorns and manzanita berries. Mustering up enough strength to drag his injured leg along with his good one, the wanted man gathered more wood and kept the fire going. He resolved that one more day of rest might relieve his leg enough to travel. Perhaps he could snare a rabbit and eat like a man, rather than a scavenging, wounded animal.

He lay in front of the stove once more, drifting in and out of dreams of his wife. Was she in Mendocino or Ukiah? The last report on Billings, Brown, and Gaunce... Tehama? He could ride like his Indian days through the night and eat snake in a cave by day. Rumor put Gaunce as a gambling man. What odds would he lay on this dentist?

Smoke wafted from the wood stove's chimney at noon. Wheeler woke, startled by a voice, scratched his head, and wondered if Billings or Brown had called to him in a dream.

From outside, a man's voice called again, “Who's there?”

In a weakened voice, Wheeler answered, “Me.”

“Who's me?”

(Coming soon: The answer to that question and more on the Mendocino Outlaws.)

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