The very last days of the Jacksonville–Yreka stage
He stands beside the stagecoach, his keen eyes squinting into the noonday glare. The four horses are restless, stamping the ground, raising dust into the air. He goes to the front of the team, checking them over with an expert eye, tightening a line here and loosening a strap there. He then climbs the big wheel to the bench, stepping easily over the strongbox bearing the legend BEEKMAN BANK—JACKSONVILLE, OREGON—AGENT OF WELLS, FARGO & CO. It is filled with gold from the Jacksonville mines, destined for San Francisco.
He settles into his place on the hard seat, shifting his big Colt revolver a little more comfortably along his right leg. He feels movement next to him as his express messenger climbs up. He turns to Buck and asks softly, “Ready?” Buck nods, clutching his shotgun tightly.
This is going to be a routine but rough trip through the twisting Klamath River Canyon to Yreka, California. A few weeks ago a group of Modoc Indians from Captain Jack’s band stopped the stage to get a free ride into Yreka.
In March he had found a half-frozen Chinese laborer in the Siskiyou Mountains near Colstein Station. It is necessary to be especially alert at Black Bart Rock, south of Hornbrook. Black Bart, a stage robber known for his flour-sack mask and his habit of leaving poetry at the scene of his holdups signed “Black Bart, the PO8,” has been holding up stages in Northern California for the past two years. He hasn’t been active recently, a bad sign according to Mr. Jackson.
I reach for the reins, placing the ribbons between the fingers of my gloved left hand. A motion catches my attention. Buck is climbing down from the box. He’s hungry. He’s going home. He is six. He is my brother. I am nine.
The stagecoach was in Mr. Jackson’s backyard, a few houses down from ours on Iowa Street in Ashland, Oregon, in the 1920s. It was a stage that had made the run between Jacksonville and Yreka in the late 1800s, and Mr. Jackson allowed the neighborhood kids to play on it. When we weren’t on the stagecoach, we were listening to Mr. Jackson’s stories of the road, and my brother and I, two little German boys, were fascinated. He chose to be called “Buck,” and I became “Bill.” As often as we could, we drove the stage through the Klamath River Canyon to Yreka, modeling our behavior on those real men of the West—Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and Tim McCoy.
Some years later we moved away from Mr. Jackson’s neighborhood, and as luck would have it, our new home was across the street from that of a very old gentleman, Mr. Dews, who had been one of the last drivers of Mr. Jackson’s old stage. Mr. Dews usually sat on his front porch, wearing a battered old Stetson. A diabetic, he was partially paralyzed, but he could still talk. So before the Army called us for World War II, we listened to him tell his stories of his trips on the stagecoach through the canyon.
The Klamath River Canyon stage road, later part of the Pacific Highway, U.S. 99, has been replaced by Interstate 5, a fast, smooth highway. These days, traveling on I-5 over the Siskiyous into the canyon, I can still see the old stage road following the river far below me. And then sometimes a strange thing happens.
My jaw tightens, my eyes squint into the sun, and I am once again on the bench with Buck beside me. The strongbox of Jacksonville gold must get through. But as crucial as it is to maintain the schedule, we negotiate the tricky curves along the river carefully and slowly, because Wells, Fargo & Company insists on passenger safety above speed. I know that because Mr. Jackson told me so when I was ready to drive my first stage through the canyon a long, long time ago.