A Friend of Charley Boles

By Marco Etheridge

I was a young man of twenty-two and green to the ways of the world when I first arrived on the island of Oahu. The year was eighteen-ninety-eight and the world was on the cusp of a new millennium full of promise. I boarded a steamer in San Francisco, leaving behind the twilight of the Wild West. Gone were the days of rough gold camps, gunslingers, and stagecoach bandits. As I boarded the steamship in San Francisco, my eyes looked over the Pacific, to the dawn of the modern era.

Back in the hills of California, the days of the outlaws had passed into dime novels. Some of the old fossils had become legends, like the bandit Charley Boles. Black Bart, as he came to be known, robbed stagecoaches from California to Oregon. Eight years and twenty-seven stage robberies made his fame. The newspapers reveled in the adventures of Black Bart. They printed every detail of his latest holdup. But through the years of his banditry, the identity of Black Bart remained a mystery. In all of those robberies, no one ever caught a glimpse of his face.

In the end, the Pinkerton detectives caught Charley Boles, as they always do once they set their sights on a man. The old bandit went to prison. When Charley Boles was finally released from San Quentin, he disappeared. I suppose facing the modern world was too much for the old codger.

As for me, the beginnings of my adult life lay before me. I looked upon everything around me with eager, wondering eyes. As the years passed, I became a bandit in my own right, and on a far grander scale than anything Charley Boles could dream of, but that is another tale.

Fresh from a cramped steerage berth on the Matson steamship line, I had only two days prior arrived on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. It was my first journey away from the mainland and indeed my first sojourn from my home state of Oregon. The financial panic of 1896 had passed, and I was eager to take my new position as a clerk for Mr. John Kidwell of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company.

My first lodging in Honolulu was in the domain and under the wing of a stern Hawaiian matron by the name of Missus Johnson. A woman of formidable presence and bulk, she supplied room and board to gentlemen of limited means. The center of social interaction at the boarding house was the lanai in the rear. Here the old gentlemen gathered of an evening to smoke and read the newspapers, cooled by the breezes wafting in from the Pacific Ocean. And it was here, on my second evening at the boarding house, that I unwittingly offended the notorious outlaw Black Bart.

Following a hearty dinner and a bout of unsolicited advice from Missus Johnson, I took my place amongst the gentlemen. They were already gathered on the lanai when I eased myself into the one unoccupied wicker chair. As the newcomer and the youngest guest by a matter of decades, I was the subject of their curiosity. Eager for news of the mainland, they asked me about the details of my travels. One old gentleman sat aloof from the others, his face hidden behind a raised newspaper.

The denizens of the boarding house peppered me with questions and comments, first with regard to my name. I share a surname with William McKinley, who was the president at that time, but my given name is Michael. I assured the gents that I was in no way related to the famous man.

It was the relating of my journey to Hawaii, however, that sparked the rough incident with the outlaw. The gents queried me about my route and my passage. Yes, I had sailed from San Francisco on the Matson Line. No, the passage was not a comfortable one. When asked where I hailed from, I told them my hometown was Jacksonville in the grand state of Oregon. Grey heads nodded and one of them was curious about my overland route to the city of San Francisco. I answered that I had taken the coach, the Wells Fargo stage.

The silence that followed my words was sudden and uncomfortable. The men shifted back in their chairs as if moving away from a wounded and doomed creature. The chilly moment was broken by the sharp pop of a newspaper being folded with vigor. The hidden gentleman was now fully visible. He glared at me with angry eyes.

He was a man of perhaps seven decades, with short grey hair above a wide brow. His nose was straight and proud, overtopped by eyes that reminded me of a bird of prey. Grey-white moustaches flared from beneath his nose, flowing outwards like wings. More whiskers sprang from beneath his lip, covering his strong chin. He was on the whole a handsome man and one who looked as if he brooked no nonsense. He slapped the folded paper against his knee. When he spoke, his words were as sharp as the edge of a blade.

“Young man, I caution you against another mention of that foul company. You do so at the risk of a thrashing.”

His words hung in the air and were followed by the general and speedy retreat of the other guests. The herd of geezers gained the main house and silence reigned over the lanai. In the span of a few heartbeats, I found myself alone, facing this strange old man who bristled like a badger. I thought I detected the trace of a grin hidden beneath the drapery of his moustaches, but his voice was as gruff as a goat.

“Well young feller, are you going to stick or fly?”

I tried to stutter out a polite phrase, but the words stuck in my craw. Retaining my seat seemed the best I could do, so I stuck to that course. The old man leaned back in his chair, quiet laughter replacing his swift anger.

“You seem persistent at least. Persistence is a fine enough quality in a young man, provided it is tempered with caution. Do you possess caution, Sir?”

“No, Mister Michael McKinley, you did not catch anything. However, it would not be proper to thrash a man without first making the introductions. My name is T.Z. Spalding. The initials don’t signify. My folks just liked the sound of them I expect. Folks call me Spalding.”

“I am pleased to meet you, Mister Spalding.”

“Not likely, but you seem a polite lad and that will serve you well, even if it ain’t true. Now then, you had better ask your question before you burst.”

“Well Sir, now that we seem to be alone, I could not help but wonder…”

“Yes, yes, you want to ask why an old gent would threaten you with a thrashing over the name of a stage line.”

“You must admit, it is a bit unusual.”

“The whole damn story is unusual, young McKinley. Unusual is the only way to tell it proper.”

Old Spalding dropped his newspaper to the crushed coral terrace and folded his hands across his waistcoat.

“It started back in the Montana Territory, about eighteen and seventy-one. I was a prospector back then, along with my friend Charley Boles. Charley was a good man, a man of honor. Then a pair of lying detectives came along, hired guns that worked for Wells Fargo. Those two curs got it into their heads that Charley Boles was behind some trouble that he had nothing to do with. Up until then, Charley was as honest as the day is long.

Those detectives besmirched the name and honor of Charley Boles, even though they couldn’t prove a damned thing, may they both rot in hell. They told lies about Charley, which led to suspicion and ruined his name with the other miners. Those villains treated Charley Boles like an outlaw and had no cause to do so. It was too much for my friend to bear. He swore an oath of revenge, and Charley Boles was a man of his word. If they wanted an outlaw, why, he would damn sure give them one.”

The old man’s words rattled around in my brain and the light of recognition dawned.

“Charles Boles? Are you referring to the notorious outlaw Black Bart, the stagecoach bandit?”

The old man smiled and nodded.

“I am, but my friend Charley was much more than a simple bandit. Charley Boles was a prospector in the gold rush of forty-nine, a husband and father, and a hero of the Civil War. You sure you want to hear all of this?”

I nodded my head and Mister T.Z. Spalding began to spin his tale.

The way Spalding told it, Charley came home from the goldfields empty-handed, like so many others who tried their fortune. He made two trips chasing the gold bug, neither of them successful. The man lost two brothers to sickness on the second trip.

He returned to the New York farmland of his family where he met Mary Elizabeth Johnson, the woman who would become his wife. In 1860 they headed out west to Illinois and settled into farming. He was a married man when the Civil War broke out.

It wasn’t long before the Civil War swallowed up the country. Charley enlisted in the 116th Illinois Regiment. Boles served on the Union side and was eventually promoted to First Sergeant. He was wounded at Vicksburg where Ulysses S. Grant made a name for himself. For three bloody years, he fought his way across the South. He ended up with Uncle Billy Sherman on the March to the Sea. The army finally mustered his unit out in 1865.

Charley returned to his wife Mary Elizabeth, but Illinois farming could not hold him. The prospecting bug was still in his blood and he lit out for the Montana Territory.

I broke into his narrative to ask one of the many questions spinning in my brain.

“But Mister Spalding, how did this lead to robbing stagecoaches in California?”

The old man held up a hand to still me and then resumed his tale.

Charley Boles left Montana for California, bent on making those Wells Fargo bastards pay for their false accusations. He knew the California gold fields from his days as a prospector. He knew the lay of the land, he knew the stage roads, and he knew the skunks at Wells Fargo. He put all that knowledge to good use when he turned to banditry. If they were bent on calling him an outlaw, then Charley meant to show them the meaning of the word.

Questions were bursting in my brain, and I interrupted again.

“So Black Bart journeyed to California to seek his revenge?”

“That is exactly what he did, my lad, and a long and careful revenge it was. The first stage he robbed was in Calaveras County. Mister Twain’s famous frog had nothing to do with it, by the way.”

Spalding spun out his tale, leaning back in the old wicker chair.

Charley was not above a bit of trickery. Before that first stage robbery, he had a clever idea. He tied sticks into the brush that grew thick along the stage road. The sticks poked out of the bushes as if aimed at the dusty road.

Pistol in hand, Charley stopped the stagecoach. Once he captured that teamster’s attention, Charley hollered at his stick posse to let loose a volley if anyone moved. That poor driver saw the sticks and took them for a bandit gang, with each desperado pointing a rifle barrel at the driver’s pounding heart. He gave up that Wells Fargo strongbox right quick. Charley made off with a slim hundred and sixty dollars, but he made off alive.

I remembered the tales and a question sprang to my lips.

“But Mister Spalding, what about the poems?”

The man shook his head, as if in regret.

“You’re getting ahead of the story.”

Spalding would not be hurried. Black Bart was famous not only for his daring robberies but also because of two poems the bandit left behind.

The poems didn’t appear until almost two years after the first stage robbery. Charley signed the poems Black Bart, a name he stole from a ten-cent novel. It was his way of thumbing his nose at the Pinkerton detectives but he would rue his foolishness in the end. Those hellhounds didn’t much appreciate being made fun of. After that, Black Bart was their arch enemy.

As Spalding told it, his friend Charley Boles had some odd habits for a notorious stage robber. For one thing, he was afraid of horses. He carried that fear with him from his years on the battlefields. He committed all of his robberies afoot. Charley could run like a deer and that’s how he made his getaways. The stage drivers said Black Bart took one step into the bushes and vanished, strongbox and all.

He was known for being polite, even when holding a double-barrel scattergun in the driver’s face. Charley didn’t stand with cussing and neither did Black Bart. Sure, he used a blue phrase in one of his verses, but it was just the once. What you might call poetic license.

Eight years a bandit and twenty-seven stages robbed made Black Bart famous. The newspapers loved the story and printed every detail of his latest holdup. But the identity of Black Bart remained a mystery because no one ever saw his face.

He wore a flour sack mask with eye holes and a bowler hat atop that. When he stepped out from behind a rock, he looked like the ghost of an English highwayman. Black Bart carried a double-barrel shotgun to make his point clear, but he never fired the thing. That became another of his trademarks.

Spalding paused and surveyed the night sky. He stared at the stars as if searching for something. Having not yet learned the value of silence, I asked a question.

“If Black Bart’s face was a mystery to the detectives, how did they come to arrest him?”

The old man looked down from the stars and gave me a half-smile.

“There’s a hard lesson for you, Michael McKinley. A feller’s luck always runs out. The gold vein peters to nothing, or the winning streak comes to an end. That’s the way of it and no escape.’

He stroked his moustaches with a forefinger. 

“It was his twenty-eighth stage job that proved to be Black Bart’s undoing. A case of simple bad luck, a bolted-down strongbox, and a stray rifle.”

Spalding pronounced the sentence of bad luck like a judge passing down a verdict. Then he continued the tale of his friend.

Charley waited on the uphill end of a hill, just like he always did. Stagecoaches had to slow to a walk coming up those steep grades. Charley stepped out from behind a rock and waved his scattergun in the driver’s face. The teamster did what he was told. He unhitched the horses and headed up to the summit, leaving the coach behind. Charley got busy with the strongbox. That’s where bad luck found him. The thing was bolted down.

A local feller had hitched a ride on the stage, a young man about your age. Those stages were slow as a tortoise going uphill, so this young rascal took his rifle and slipped off the coach to hunt the hillside. He planned to meet the driver atop the summit.

When he got to the top, he found the driver and a team of horses, but no coach. The driver grabbed the hunter’s rifle and began firing down on the stranded stagecoach and Charley Boles. Charley was fighting with the stubborn strongbox and dodging bullets. The young feller snatched his rifle back from the teamster and fired off two more shots. The last one caught Black Bart in the hand.

One bullet in the hand was not enough to stop Charley Boles. He has seen that and far worse in the war between the states. He snatched what he could from the strongbox and disappeared into the brush. He kept what gold coins there were and cached the rest of the loot in a hollow log. In his scramble to escape, Black Bart lost his eyeglasses and a bloodied handkerchief. It was the handkerchief that did him in.

Those Pinkertons were stubborn as mules. They combed the hillside where Black Bart was shot, looking under every leaf and branch. The detectives discovered the bloody hankie Charley had dropped, and on that soiled rag they found a laundry mark.

It may sound impossible, but those hired hounds went to every washhouse in San Francisco until they matched the bloody laundry mark to a name. That name led them to Charley Boles’s boarding house, and there they arrested him. A dropped handkerchief brought Black Bart’s eight-year run of luck to an end.

The judge gave Charley Boles six years in San Quentin. He’d served four when they let him out for good behavior. Years of hard prison time turned the bandit into an old man, eyesight going bad, deaf in one ear. The newspapermen were waiting for Charley when he walked out of prison. They asked if he was going to rob any more stages. He just laughed and told them he was through with crime.

T.Z. Spalding paused and gave the stars above another long look.

An outlaw jailed into an old man struck me as a sad thing. Better to have gone out in a blaze of gunfire during that last holdup. You’ll remember that I was still young, so I ask you to excuse my romanticism. Then I recalled the disappearance of the famous bandit.

“Mister Spalding, didn’t Black Bart vanish not long after that?”

“Indeed he did.The prison warden might have been done with Charley Boles, but the Pinkertons were not. They followed Boles everywhere he went. Charley wrote one last letter to his wife, whom he had not seen in many years. He told her that those devils would never leave him alone and that all he wanted was to get away from everyone. And that is exactly what he did.

“The last anyone saw of Black Bart was when he checked into the Visalia House Hotel in Visalia, California. Once inside his room, Charley Boles disguised himself and Black Bart disappeared right along with him. The detectives tracked him to the hotel, sure as hound dogs, but Charley Boles was gone. The desk clerk told those mangy detectives that their man had been there, sure as the day is long, but he had up and disappeared. The old feller hadn’t even bothered to check out. That was in the year eighteen and eight-eight.”

“Ten years ago, I remember my father reading it out of the newspaper.”

“That’s right, it made all the papers. What they didn’t know was that Charley Boles slipped away on one of William Matson’s steamships out of San Francisco, the SS Lurline. He came here, to this very island of Oahu, but he knew it wouldn’t be far enough. Those Pinkertons would track him to the ends of the earth, so he cast a false trail to throw them off the scent.”

“He was here in Oahu? But where did he go?”

“The last I heard, they figured Charley Boles had made it to Japan and was living amongst the heathens. At any rate, that’s what that no-good Johnny Thacker believes. He was the Pinkerton who arrested Charley Boles. I guess if they figure Black Bart has gotten all the way to Nippon, then he wasn’t a bee in their bonnet anymore. Maybe now they’ll leave the old man in peace.”

“And you’ve heard nothing from your friend, no letter or message?”

“No, I have heard nary a word these last ten years.”

“Well, speaking for myself, I wish the bandit well. He took his revenge, and it makes a fine tale.”

“What would you say if I was to tell you that my friend’s revenge didn’t add up to a hill of beans? Black Bart was nothing more than a blue-bottle fly buzzing around their fat banquet. Yes, he was a bandit, but all the money he took from those strongboxes didn’t add up to a year’s salary for Mister Wells or Mister Fargo.”

T.Z. Spalding leaned over the edge of his wicker chair and spat upon the lanai.

“The real crimes, the big heists, are done by men in starched collars sitting at mahogany desks. Look at the depredations brought about by the crash of ninety-six. Those criminals rob folks with nothing more than pen and ink. They have ruined far more lives than a platoon of train robbers or stagecoach bandits. They hunted down Black Bart because he annoyed them, not because he hurt them.”

It was then that the great shadow of Missus Johnson appeared on the edge of the lanai. I thought I saw her cast a dark eye at Mister Spalding before she beckoned me to come to the house. Not wishing to run afoul of my new landlady, and being slightly afraid of her, I excused myself.

Once inside the house, she barricaded the door with her gingham-draped bulk. I received a stern lecture on the importance of a young man keeping proper company, all without a name being mentioned. Then she shooed me off to my room. As her fierce countenance brooked no objection, I obeyed like a schoolboy. I never saw T.Z. Spalding again.

The next evening, returning from a day of clerking at the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, I looked forward to the evening meal and more tales from my new friend. To my surprise and bitter disappointment, I found that T.Z. Spalding was no longer a guest at Johnson’s boarding house.

That night, on the lanai, the cadre of aging gentlemen let me in on a secret that they held in sacred common. T.Z. Spalding and Charles Boles were one and the same man. Of course they were. Who else would know such intimate details about another man’s story? He pulled the wool over your eyes, lad. The old geezers chuckled amongst themselves, amused by my gullibility. I did not appreciate being the butt of their joke and retired to my room to nurse my hurts.

I have been three decades now on these Hawaiian Islands and in all those years I have not heard a single word about the fate of my friend T.Z. Spalding, also known as the bandit Charley Boles. Perhaps he finally made his way to Japan and lived out his days amongst the heathens, as the Pinkertons detectives still claim. Charley would be over one hundred years old by now, so I suspect he has gone to his grave.

I hope someone said the proper words over him before they laid him to his final rest. And I hope they carved his real name on the marker. The old bandit deserved that much if nothing else.

In my years on Oahu, I have risen through the ranks of the company, becoming Mister Michael McKinley, a man to be reckoned with and feared. In the course of that rise to power, I have become every bit the bandit that Black Bart was and more. I commit my robberies with pen and ink, as Charley had unwittingly predicted, never needing to don a flour-sack mask or threaten a frightened teamster with an upraised shotgun.

Nowadays, sitting behind my mahogany desk, I steal from the poor and give to the rich, making sure that my share is deducted from the total profits. I oversee entire farms where Hawaiians toil in the fields harvesting pineapples to satisfy the desires of the mainland. The workers pick for pennies and we harvest the dollars. When there are not enough native workers, or when they were unwilling to pick for pennies, I bring new workers from other lands. Such is the way of it.

Black Bart taught me a lesson that has stood me well in my business. In this world, there is a great current of money that flows in one direction and one direction only. A clever highwayman knows which way the money flows and sails accordingly. That is the lesson I learned from the man known as T.Z. Spalding, though I am sure it is not the lesson he meant to impart. I doubt he would approve of my rapacious ink pen.

Still, I miss the old codger. I often raise a glass of fine whiskey to the memory of the good bandit Charley Boles. He was a friend of mine, if only for one evening.

Bio: Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in more than sixty reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. Marco’s volume of collected flash fiction, “Broken Luggage,” is available worldwide. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor and layout grunt for a new ‘Zine called Hotch Potch. His author’s website can be found HERE. He has published the following stories on The Yard: Crime Blog. “The Bear Paw Beat“, “The Wrong Name“, “How Not To Take The Fall” and an Interview.

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Publishing Editor for The Yard: Crime Blog.

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