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A Really Mean Man

I love stories in which the good guys win, especially when the villain is a low-down skunk like Snake Plumber.

Actually, skunks avoided Snake–they couldn’t stand the scent of him. Eventually, justice triumphed over mean old Snake Plumber, in a most emphatic way.

Miss Ellie and I were roaming the hills of southern Yavapai County, as we often do. We visited the sparse ruins of one ghost town, Pato Azul, and the tailings of the Moribund Mine, a famous silver diggings.

Heading home, we turned a bend in the road and there was Consolation, or what was left of it. I had heard about this storied place, and the Retention Mine, whose copper ore built the town. I’d also heard stories about Slow John, the hermit who lives there.

Estimates of Consolations’s peak population, about a hundred years ago, range from 1,500 people to several hundred thousand. I lean toward the lower figure.

In published histories of boom towns, you’ll frequently find the claim that the town–Bisbee, Jerome, Tombstone–was at one time the largest city between St.Louis and San Francisco. Consolation was undeniably the largest city between Jerome and Oatman.

There are hundreds of ghost town sites in Arizona, but there’s not much left of most of them. Consolation still has a couple of false-front commercial buildings and half a dozen sagging homes, plus the foundations of buildings long since gone. And it has a sturdy little jail, the most substantial structure in town.

Consolation is the opposite of Jerome, now a tourist attraction and arts colony. Tunneling and blasting made the earth under Jerome unstable, and the town went downhill, literally. One day the jail slid off down the hill.

Consolation did not slide downhill. The Retention Mine was so busy that growing piles of overburden and mill tailings pushed Consolation UP the hill.

They say the Consolation jail has climbed about 74 feet uphill from where it started. It’s a little stone building about eight feet square with a flat tin roof. Its door, a grid of welded iron straps, is secured by an ancient, rusty padlock.

Ellie peered into the square holes in the door. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she recoiled and said, “Look!”

A skeleton was stretched out on the floor of the prison. We had just discovered the skeleton when a dry, croaking voice behind us said, “Can I he’p you folks?”

We jumped, turned and met Slow John. He was tall and thin, a little stooped, and his beard and hair were white and scraggly. He was carrying an old double-barrelled shotgun in an unthreatening way.

Slow John led us next door to sit on the porch of a false-front wood building that had once been a barber shop. The porch and the false front were about all that was left; behind the facade, time and weather had collapsed the walls inward.

Slow John invited us to join him on a makeshift bench. He rested the shotgun across his knees and peered at us curiously through thick glasses.

I wanted to ask John about the grisly thing we’d just seen inside the jail. But I figured we’d better get to know him better before we asked prying questions.

“John,” I said, “how old do you figure you are now?”

“Well, I’m either a hundred and six, or a hundred and twelve. Can’t remember…let’s see, I was about eight when the mine shut down and Mom and Dad rode off and left me…”

That would make Slow John 108, actually. It was a century ago this year that the Retention Mine ran out of copper. Overnight, Consolation became a ghost town.

By sundown the next day, Slow John was the only resident left. His father had heard they were hiring miners at Too Soon, up in the Bradshaws, and he and John’s mother quickly loaded the wagon. John’s dad was impatient, and he got tired of waiting for Slow John to get it together.

John’s parents drove off and left him, figuring he’d follow along when he felt like it.

“I never got around to leaving,” Slow John said. “Maybe I will someday.”

Finally I got enough courage to ask, “John, is that a skeleton there in the jail?”

He cleared his throat and said, “Yep, that’s the bones of Snake Plumber. He was a real bad outlaw. Mean sonofabitch…”

Slow John said Snake’s real name was Rutherford Plumber. He got the nickname “Snake” because when he was about six years old, he bit a rattlesnake and the snake died.

Snake grew up to be six-foot-five, and seemed to be built of wire cables bound together with straps of meanness.

Slow John told how Snake Plumber had wandered around the mining boom towns, robbing a tavern here, a mercantile there. He held up trains and stagecoaches, stole horses and borrowed other people’s cattle.

He was captured and nearly lynched one time in the mining camp called Big Bug. He stared down the lynch mob, then stole the rope.

Snake could start a dog fight just by growling at the dogs. Folks claimed he could kill a snake just by looking at it–a slight exaggeration, as you will learn.

One day his horse threw him into a patch of cholla cactus. The thorns recoiled. Snake was so angry at his horse, Arsenic, that the steed was afraid to come back to get him. Snake had to walk fifteen miles to town.

Snake blocked the boardwalks in Consolation and made lewd remarks about other men’s wives, daring the husbands to do something about it.

He pulled the wings off flies just to see them struggle, and he tormented little kids. Slow John said, “Every time Snake saw me, he pulled out his pocketknife and said he was going to cut off my ears. Terrible thing to do to a little fella…”

Snake decided to settle in Consolation. That didn’t sit well with the owner of the Retention Mine, Colonel A. Jack Onager. Colonel Onager had grandiose dreams for his mine and his town, and he didn’t want a one-man lawless element.

He hired a new town marshall, Slammer Jones, who had just cleaned up the town of Headstone, a hell hole down by Silver City, New Mexico.

Slammer had the looks and the build of Clint Eastwood. He was every bit as tough as Snake Plumber, and twice as devious. Colonel Onager wired Jones that his first job was to get rid of Snake Plumber.

Slammer slipped into town quietly and checked into the Grand Consolation Hotel, whose brick walls still stand. By 1903, the hotel had been pushed so far up by the mill tailings that you had to climb 147 steps to get to the front door.

The desk clerk, Chester, said, “I’m sorry, but I only have one bed left, and you wouldn’t want it.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Slammer asked.

“It’s in the same room with the old fella we call Kegger. He snores real bad. Keeps the whole town awake with his snoring. Ain’t none of us had a good night’s sleep in years.”

“I’ll take it,” said Slammer, who had been riding three days and nights without sleep.

The idlers in Consolation figured this would be a night to remember. When Slammer went up to his room, they gathered in the lobby to watch his quick exit.

About 9 p.m., they heard Kegger start to snore. Then there was an abrupt silence that continued all night long. Eventually, the disappoined loafers wandered off to their own beds.

Next morning, Chester asked Slammer how he got Kegger to stop snoring.

“I kissed him on the lips,” Slammer said. “He sat up all night watching me.”

His reputation established, Slammer wasted no time in setting up Snake for the kill.

Snake had persistently tormented a pretty woman named Sarah Jane, wife of a good-hearted miner named Bradley. Bradley was tough but small, no match for big Snake Plumber.

A miner named Grover had been killed in a mine cave-in. Townspeople passed the hat to collect money for Grover’s widow and eleven children.

Slammer put out the word that Bradley and Sarah Jane were going to deliver $356 to the widow one evening.

It was a bright, moonlit night as Bradley and Sarah Jane walked up Anarchy Gulch toward the widow’s shack. Snake jumped out of the shadows and snatched the large wallet protruding from Bradley’s hip pocket.

Snake had never learned to quit when he was ahead. He put his arm around Sarah Jane and commented on the shape of her behind, an unthinkable breach of decency in those days.

Bradley and Sarah Jane had anticipated this moment, and planned for it. Sarah Jane smiled and batted her eyelashes at Snake. This so surprised the outlaw that Bradley got in a pretty good punch.

Slammer Jones and six large Moravian miners seemed to come out of nowhere and put Snake on the ground. They packed him off to jail while he screamed threats of revenge.

The judge sentenced Snake to a year and a day in the rock jail, on charges of robbery, assault, lewdness, meanness, habitual sneakiness, public cruelty and three old counts of grand theft sheep.

Snake yelled and carried on for a day or so in the jail, until he gave himself laryngitis and had to quiet down.

Unfortunately for Snake, the Retention Mine petered out six months later. Colonel Onager, who was badly overextended financially, left in the middle of the night. Slammer left Consolation right behind him, the jail key in his pocket.

“Why didn’t he let Snake out of jail before he left?” I asked. Slow John looked at me as though I was slow-witted and said, “Snake hadn’t served his time yet.”

“Well, how did he die? Did he starve to death?” I wasn’t a newspaper reporter fifty years for nothing.

“Nope,” Slow John said. “Bad as I hated him, I took him some food and water.

“No, it was a rattlesnake that got him. Crawled into the jail just to find a little shade, and Snake started hollering at him.

“That rattler bit Snake. Then the rattler crawled over here under this porch and died.”

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