If you assume that Hollywood went overboard portraying the derring-do of the shotgun riders of the Old West, think again. These guys were as daredevil, dogged and—according to the tintypes—dashing as any Louis L’Amour novel hero. And the highway bandits (and occasional Wells Fargo turncoat) were every bit as colorful and defiant as those in a romantic ballad. Shotguns and Stagecoaches author John Boessenecker is an unabashed lover of the wild, wild West, and quite frankly, he loves the tales of the bad men as much as those of the good guys. This fun, flamboyant read is his ninth book, and it reads a little like a wall of wanted posters, handlebar mustaches and all.
Henry Wells and William G. Fargo were owners of American Express, but after the discovery of gold in California, they realized that the western half of the United States needed a mail delivery system, especially for valuable commodities. So Wells and Fargo recruited a small army of armed guards, called shotgun messengers. Some of the property they were transporting was astonishing—like thousands of dollars’ worth of gold dust. And it wasn’t just shotguns they used to protect their cargo, but pistols, rifles, knives, whatever came to hand and sheer nerve.
The shotgun messengers were a truly colorful crowd, crossing the legal boundaries in both directions, and often more than once. Some were former or future justice officers, some just happened to be good shots, while others were failed gold miners at unwanted leisure. The luckiest, or smartest, lasted the longest: Henry Ward worked for almost 50 years as shotgun messenger and driver.
Most of the reference material Boessenecker uses is from the period, like contemporary newspaper reports, and the fervid prose has seeped into the text. But that’s much of the fun of the book; short, dramatic scenes and crosscutting violence.
Perhaps the most interesting, and saddest, facet of these mini bios is how many of the stagecoach heroes died lonely, crippled and even destitute—divorced after years of absence, wracked by wounds and hard riding and, in many cases, even harder drinking. Barkeep! Shots for the shotgun messengers.