The Wanton Murder of Fresno Bob

Everybody in Gold River knew him as Fresno Bob. Probably because they thought he hailed from Fresno, but I know for a fact that he came in from the James Hill Camp.

The James Hill Camp is a mining community about thirty-five miles due east of Gold River up the rugged Sudsbury Trail. The Camp consists of about 40 tents of various sizes and colors, most of which started out white but became grimy and weathered over time. A few of the tent owners, particularly those who ran businesses out of their tents, had painted the canvas since the settlement was fairly well established and, over time, their appearance had become somewhat unsightly.

Mr. Tittleman, the general store proprietor, even erected a large porch with a business-like facade, with two small windows and a windowed door. Camp folks had to open the door in order to enter his tent store. Unfortunately, during rain storms, a torrent of water cascaded right inside the door that would drench anyone trying to enter.

Mr. Tittleman had a big sign made in San Francisco that he hung above the door that read, “Titleman’s General Store.” Much to Mr. Tittleman’s dismay, the sign-painting company in San Francisco misspelled his name on the sign, but no one seemed to notice, except Mr. Tittleman, who made rather coarse remarks signaling his displeasure over this unforgivable sin.

Except for Mr. Tittleman’s porch and store facade, the jail house was the only other non-canvas structure in the entire camp. It was a wooden building that was constructed the year prior to deal with lawbreakers. Though most of the serious criminals were shipped down to Gold River to face justice, it was not uncommon for camp residents to handle some of the more serious crimes locally.

The deep rope wounds on one of the lower limbs of the great oak tree near the edge of the camp could attest to this. You could also see, on this same lower limb, what would appear to be a railroad spike about six feet out from the trunk of the tree.

As the story goes, the first hanging this tree witnessed did not fare too well. Apparently, when the rope went taut on the lawbreaker being hung on this limb the rope slid down to the bottom of the limb where the man jerked and squirmed for about forty-five minutes resting up against the trunk of the tree with his feet just inches from the ground. You see, the limb was not parallel to the ground. It angled sharply upwards so that the rope would naturally slide down to the bottom of the limb. Hence, the spike. All future hangings, of which there were many, had the rope securely placed above the spike so the hangee would not slip down to the bottom of the limb. After all, if the first person hanged had been just a few inches taller, he might have had to be rehung in order to effect the camp people’s will.

Fresno Bob’s name wasn’t even Bob.

About three years earlier when I first arrived at the James Hill Camp, where he sort of acted as lawman, everybody called him Sheriff Deek. They had even given him a badge to signify his high office, unofficial though it was.

Sheriff Deek McAllister was a very hard man, and a very hard man to like. Everybody said that he was the fastest man with a gun in the entire camp, and pretty accurate too. He had a dark beard, a musty smell about him, and a noticeable limb. I had the privilege of watching him pistol whip a man nearly to death over an imprudent remark he had made to one of the girls at the biggest tent in camp–the Sunrise Saloon.

Now, when he arrived in Gold River, Deek McAllister was not the name he used. He came into Philson’s Saloon and Card Room on the day he arrived. Here, I overheard him telling a town official friend of mine that his name was Bob and that he was just in from Fresno.

My councilman friend replied, “Well, Fresno Bob, let me buy you a whiskey.”

The sobriquet “Fresno Bob,” from that point forward, was the only thing folks around here ever called him.

His appearance had changed since I had seen him last. His beard had grayed some, and he appeared quite a bit older, even though it had only been about two years. But, he seemed to still have his limp, though he seemed to be trying very hard to disguise it. I knew it was him when I moved over closer to him and noticed that musty smell that only he imbued.

I had settled in this town several years ago and I own The Philson Mercantile. I bought it from ole’ man Philson for 1,750 dollars, lock, stock and barrel. His son owns the town saloon that I mentioned earlier. The Philsons seem intent on naming their businesses after themselves, and it seems that the Philson Family own half the businesses in town–The Philson Dress Shop, for the ladies, The Philson Livery, for the horses, The Philson Mining Consortium, which was not a consortium of anyone outside the Philson Family, and the two businesses already mentioned in this story. Except, The Philson Mercantile, which I now own. Maybe I will change the name someday but, for now, it probably helps to keep the name as it is.

Fresno Bob came into the Mercantile a week after he had arrived and bought some cartridges for his pistol and rifle, about a pound of coffee, two pounds of dried beef, and looked wantonly upon a double-barrel shotgun I had up for sale.

He didn’t seem to know me, and I let it rest at that. I was not keen on reminding him that there are people in California who could remember how callous he had behaved when he acted as camp lawman at the James Hill Camp.

Tragically, about ten days ago three men rode into town and unloaded their pistols into Fresno Bob. Needless to say, Fresno Bob did not survive his wounds. They, then, jumped back onto their horses and rode off the same direction they had come.

In my entire life I had never seen such a thing. Sure, I had seen many random gunfights which usually resulted in some man’s death, but I had never seen a man shot dead without having had an opportunity to even defend himself.

Being a respected member of the Gold River community I was asked by the town sheriff to join the posse that was being organized to apprehend these evil men. I accepted. There were nine of us and we set off towards the east, the direction the three men rode off and, not coincidentally, towards the James Hill Camp.

The sheriff of Gold River, who I had thought would be leading our posse, had headed down the road to Dennison with another group of men. So, Clyde Culpepper was deputized to lead our group, since he had the greater experience.

That afternoon we caught up with these three evil men in the James Hill Camp. They were apparently brothers who own a couple of claims along the creek directly south of Camp. Initially, they were aiming to fight it out with us. But, seeing that we had superior numbers and firepower, they decided to surrender peacefully. I was relieved that they made this decision, considering none of our number had ever ridden on a posse before, except Clyde Culpepper. I got the impression from the other members of the posse that they were relieved as well. Except Clyde, who made some rash comments to the men–which I found quite disturbing–for the purpose of goading them into an exchange of something other than their persons.

“Unbuckle your gun belts and slide them this direction you low-life, scum of the earth, murders,” he exclaimed.

The eldest of the three, looked at Clyde, his eyes narrowed, but after a few moments, unbuckled his belt. His two brothers, thankfully, followed his lead. Deputy Culpepper was less thankful.

When we took these three men into custody, it seemed that Clyde Culpepper was itching for a fight from the very beginning of our ride back to town. He taunted the prisoners relentlessly for the entire first hours of the ride, as we all listened without adding to the conversation.

We rode for most of the evening and had to make camp since we took most of the day to get to the James Hill Camp. Most of us had nice beds at home and wanted to push forward, but we were overruled by Deputy Culpepper. In fact, we had all made such a fuss about it, but this seemed to really agitate him so, eventually, we all gave up. Blankets and saddle pillows it would be.

Late that night, I heard Deputy Culpepper, again, taunting our prisoners.

“Fresno Bob was one of the finest citizens of Gold River and you killed him. Won’t take the law long to hang y’all.”

“He deserved all he got,” one of the brothers exclaimed, “he raped and killed one of the saloon girls at the Sunrise.”

“I’ve been to the Sunrise Saloon. Who was it?” the Deputy asked, not totally believing the brother’s story.

“Martha VanPelton.”

“Martha VanPelton,” Culpepper said with a bit of alarm in his voice, “I knew her–she was so young and a lot prettier than the other girls at the Saloon. How do you know it was he who raped and killed Miss VanPelton?”

“She was our sister,” another brother answered hesitantly. “When father died, the family needed the money so she agreed to go to work at the Sunrise Saloon. She was an honorable girl who would not have dishonored our family. Sheriff Deek McAllister, was sweet on Martha and he would not leave her alone. Martha would come home from the Saloon practically in tears complaining to us about his advances.”

Deputy Culpepper continued with his investigation: “Who is this Sheriff Deek McAllister who was sweet on your sister?”

“The man we call Fresno Bob,” I interjected.

Looking surprised, Deputy Culpepper turned to me and said, “What are you talking about?”

“When Fresno Bob came to town I thought I recognized Fresno Bob as the infamous Sheriff Deek McAllister of the James Hill Camp,” I answered.

I relayed to Deputy Culpepper what I knew about Deek and how he had nearly murdered a man for insulting Martha VanPelton when I lived in the James Hill Camp.

Deputy Culpepper listened intently to my story. We both talked for a while with the brothers and got a pretty good picture of what had really happened.

The next day we got back into town in the early afternoon. The Sheriff of Gold River had already arrived back into town and had no luck finding the three murderers.

Neither did we.