For the better part of 10 minutes Thursday afternoon, a horse’s rear end stuck out of the entrance of Emberz on South Washington Street.
How it ended up there, well, that tale started long ago as a boyhood beef.
And Thursday was the day Coyote Sam was going to settle it. Once and for all.
Coyote Sam had known Sheriff Jim Mele since the two had been gold-panning rivals. They’d tally up their find at the end of each summer. It seemed Jim always came up ahead. Year after year, it festered for Coyote Sam. Some folks say it fueled him toward his present-day life of crime.
He spent the past decade marauding through small Mother Lode towns, stealing what he had come to believe was his already. At night, he would simmer with anger by a campfire, planning the day he would take care of what had become known among thieves as “that Jim Mele business.”
Coyote Sam had cooked up plenty of heists. This would be his finest. He also knew it could be his last.
He already had his men. Last August, he added to his dusty group of grifters while out in Calaveras County looking for unsuspecting travelers. Instead of cash-laden flatlanders he stumbled upon a 9-year-old wanna-be bad guy. Coyote Sam named him Baby Face Joaquin. His real name was Charles and he had run away from his home in West Virginia after convincing himself a life of crime was his destiny.
In addition to Baby Face, there was Dead Eye Doug — whose skin was so sun-beaten it was uncertain he’d ever been inside a building — and Dirty Dan. You could smell him from a mile away, and if you didn’t smell him, you heard him. He carried two elk horns full of black powder. They clattered his arrival when folks were downwind. Rounding out the bunch was Mongo, known far and wide for refusing to wear boots of any kind.
Coyote Sam had picked April 26 because he knew Maggie May — an entertainer from San Francisco — would be in town.
Maggie May had long been the holder of Sheriff Mele’s affections. With her in town there was doubt where he would be.
And so Thursday morning before daybreak the foursome saddled their horses and headed for Sonora.
Downtown was bustling. With Maggie May in town for a week’s worth of shows at Emberz, just about every cowhand and farmer for 30 miles had gotten a fresh haircut and a shave in hopes of catching a glimpse of her as she sacheted from her hotel room to the dressmaker and back. On this trip to Sonora she was accompanied on all outings by members of the Mother Lode Roundup’s queen’s court.
It was about 11:30 a.m. when Coyote Sam began his mosey down South Washington in search of the sheriff. Baby Face was hidden just outside of town. They’d need him later.
Up onto the sidewalks Sam and his cronies wandered.
Not having any luck, Coyote Sam took to the street, and after letting off a few pistol shots into the air, he yelled, “Sheriff! You best come on out now.”
The shots had sent some townspeople skittering inside stores and under tables.
The sheriff had been in Emberz with his posse, enjoying his mid-morning coffee when he heard the ruckus. He motioned his men to keep their guns put away.
By all accounts, one would have thought he had been expecting it all as he motioned for a refill and drained his cup.
With that, he stood up, straightened his holster, swiped some non-existent dust off his white cowboy hat and sauntered to the door.
“Whaddya want, Sam?” the sheriff asked.
Coyote Sam holstered his pistol as he shifted in his saddle.
“That,” he said, pointing to the gold badge pinned to the sheriff’s light brown leather vest.
The sheriff moved out onto the sidewalk and slowly shook his head.
“We don’t want trouble here Sam. You and your boys just move along.”
With that Sam let out a piercing scream, his gang whooped and they galloped away, past the stagecoach factory, around the bank and back to the saloon, shooting their guns in the air as they passed.
“I’m going to go back and finish my third cup of coffee, Sam. That’s about how much time you’ve go to move out,” the sheriff said before he returned to his stool and motioned for more coffee. He rubbed the well-polished badge, its only imperfection a dent. It had happened during his first day on the job. A shootout on Linoberg after a bank robbery. Mele swore the badge had saved his life. It was his most prized possession. Like anyone not yet six feet under, Coyote Sam knew this.
About 15 minutes passed and the silence coaxed Sonorans back outside.
What happened next was a blur. Coyote Sam, Dead Eye, Mongo and Dirty Dan came galloping back, filing their horses through the swinging door and surrounding the sheriff.
Next came Baby Face, he arrived in a heave of dust and stopped his horse midway through the door, effectively blocking the door.
He jumped down from his horse and approached the sheriff, his face sooty after months of the bath-free life, teeth dark and gritty with trail dust.
With his hat’s brim pressing into the sheriff’s forehead, he unpinned the badge and stepped back to admire the shine before tossing it up to Coyote Sam.
“Heavy ain’t it,” Baby Face said.
Coyote Sam put the badge between what was left of his teeth and bit down.
“Yep, that’s real,” he said and put it in his pocket.
“Whiskey,” he yelled at the barkeep. “And sarsaparilla for the boy.”
Baby Face loudly drained his mug and mounted his horse.
And as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone. With the badge and the future of the Mother Lode Roundup parade. Each year Sheriff Mele — and his famous badge — help kick off the parade with a flag raising ceremony in front of The Union Democrat.
The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse is asking the public’s help in locating the badge before the May 12 parade.