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Shortly after the Civil War, two California families named Coates and Frost, who had migrated to Little Lake, California, and between whom there had long existed a bitter feeling, fought a battle that startled the whole country. Captain Howard does not come into this story, but it is worth relating as a type of the troubled times in which he served as an officer of the law.
It is difficult to realize that this feud between two respected families was the tragic result of a school-boys’ quarrel. At the district school in Little Lake Valley, where the children of both families were pupils, a son of Mr. Frost and a son of Mr. Coates started an argument. During intermission they went out to settle their difficulty in school-boy fashion, employing the weapons with which nature had provided them —their little fists. All this was in accordance with the time-honored custom recognized in the boy world for generations, and under ordinary circumstances the trouble would have burnt itself out.
Unfortunately, the teacher considered it his duty to interfere and thrash the lads for infraction of the rules which forbade fighting on the school grounds. The parents of the boys then took it upon themselves to upbraid the schoolmaster for his actions, each declaring that his child had been unjustly punished.
“One of the boys must have been the aggressor,” each parent argued, “so why should both be punished for an offense of which but one could be guilty?”
The schoolmaster, being a sensible man, replied:
“In order to maintain the discipline of the school, it is necessary to punish scholars for all infractions of the rules, and fighting on the school grounds is against the rules.”
Finally, one parent was convinced that the master was right, and appeared quite willing to let the matter drop; but the father of the other boy was not so easily pacified. Eventually the matter was taken before the Board of Trustees, who after due deliberation decided to sustain the teacher. This action caused long and serious argument in the community, for it was apparent to everybody that the affair was resulting in a growing hatred between the parents. There being no appeal from the decision of the board, they were obliged to pocket their injured pride; but Frost, after receiving several threats from Coates, removed his child from the school and determined on a plan of revenge to get even with the schoolmaster.
The annual election for the new Board of Trustees was soon to take place, and Frost solemnly declared that no member of the old board should again be elected. He happened to be one of the citizens who held the privilege of appointing the teaching staff, and he intended to constitute himself the political leader at this meeting, for he meant to have the offending teacher discharged at all costs. On the other hand, another faction was just as determined that the old board should be reelected and the services of the schoolmaster retained.
It soon became evident throughout the length and breadth of the valley that serious trouble would develop over this trivial matter, for many people were convinced that the honor of each family was at stake. Between the two families terrible threats were freely exchanged, and the Frosts registered a solemn vow that the Coates family must retire from the field or they would take it upon themselves to annihilate every male being who bore the name of Coates.
A few days previous to the Board of Trustees’ election, Wesley Coates met Duncan, a brother-in-law of the Frosts, and a long talk about the family quarrel ensued, each holding the other to be wrong. Warm words resulted, and had it not been for friends of both families, who happened to be present, there would have been a serious fight. It doubtless would have been better, however, if these well intentioned friends had held their peace and left the two fire-eaters to their fate.
Shooting was not uncommon in those days, so the peaceably inclined citizens were on the alert for trouble, and together with the officers of the law intended to arrest and confine the first man who attempted a warlike movement. If one or both of these men had been killed on the spot, the feud would possibly have ended without the loss of more than two lives; but a spectator finally separated Coates and Duncan, who went their diverse ways vowing vengeance.
It was a very hot day in October, 1865; several business men were seated on the porch of Little Lake Hotel, in Southern California, endeavoring to keep cool. They had exhausted every kind of amusement and were waiting patiently for something exciting to happen. While smoking and talking under the awning, they observed a cloud of dust down the road, which signified that a traveler was coming to town. This was a relief, for in the ’sixties news from the outer world was still scarce, and every stranger had something thrilling to relate. Little did they realize that on this occasion they were going to witness a fast and furious fight.
The men had calculated just how long it took a person to reach the hotel from the point where the dust-cloud had been observed. They waited the necessary time, and as the strangers did not appear, one man said, “There must be something wrong.” Another lounger said, “I’ll bet it’s trouble between the Frost and Coates families, because to-day, the 11th, is the day of the School Board election.” This statement aroused so much interest that the hotel guests hurried to the spot where they had seen the dust-cloud. On arrival, they found Duncan and Coates in heated conversation. Knowing that Duncan was a brother-in-law of Frost, and realizing that the two were discussing family affairs, the onlookers from the hotel decided that they had no right to interfere. Suddenly Duncan said:
“I know you did say it.”
“Duncan, I never did,” was Coates’ reply.
“Well, I know darn well you did,” said Duncan.
“All this comes from the talk of a lot of busy people who want to see a fight.”
“Well,” retorted Duncan, “if they depend upon such fellows as you, they will be disappointed.”
“Now, Duncan, don’t be a fool,” said Coates; “I can fight when it is necessary. You are making a mistake in your man.”
“Oh! I don’t know,” was the taunting reply.
“Well I do, and I advise you to keep quiet. I’ll get mad pretty soon,” said Coates.
Duncan’s last remark had made Coates’ blood boil, and one could see that he was using unusual self control in his effort to avoid striking the blow.
The majority of people who lived in Little Lake Valley belonged to that branch of the Confederate army which never surrendered; after the declaration of peace they had crossed the plains to California. They were far from cowards, for the majority of them would rather fight than eat. Taking these facts into consideration, one could not but admire the way Wesley Coates handled himself. Under ordinary circumstances Duncan would have been a corpse in a second, because it was generally known that Coates was always well armed. As a matter of fact, most men carried weapons in that sparsely settled country, because some of the wandering tribes who had not yet been rounded up on the Reservations were still rather treacherous, and there was an unwritten law which gave every white man the right to shoot an Indian.
“See here,” was Duncan’s next remark, “you fellows have made a whole lot of talk about what you were going to do to the Frost family. I want you to understand that I am one of that family, and I will tell you further that we are sick of your talk. If you feel like taking a hand in a fight you will never have a better chance.”
Coates was as cool as a man who had received an invitation to dine with a friend. “Now, Duncan,” said he, “I told you once before that you may go too far. I am likely to get mad in a minute.”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll kick up fire enough to smoke a coon out of a hollow tree if you do,” was Duncan’s sneering reply.
“Duncan, shut up!” yelled Coates. “I know what you are up to, and you will get it in a minute; and when it comes to talk, you fellows have said enough about our family to land you all in jail in any part of the world. I have been told by some of the neighbors that you have made your brag that you intended to send the whole Coates family to a place where they would never be any more trouble to anybody. Do you suppose we are going to overlook such bluff as that?”
“That’s all right,” said Duncan; “I don’t say that we did not make that remark; but you can bet your last dollar on one thing: if any of the Frost boys made that remark we will stay with the game till there’s not a man of the Coates breed left to blow about the fight. I don’t believe there is a fighting man in their whole family.”
At that, Coates made a lunge at his tormentor, and before there was any chance to draw weapons they had grappled and were at it in desperate style.
The spectators made up their minds to let the men fight it out, and they became so interested in the fray that they did not hear the clatter of horses’ hoofs approaching. These new arrivals proved to be members of the Frost and Coates families, their names as follows: Martin Frost, Ishom Frost, and Elisha Frost, all brothers; Abraham Coates, Albert Coates, Henry Coates, Thomas Coates, James Coates and Abner C. Coates. They reined up amid a cloud of dust before the straining wrestlers in the road.
All the men were armed with either Colt’s “Navy” revolvers, pistols or double-barreled guns. Quick as a flash the weapons of the two family groups were drawn against each other, and the noise that followed, we are told, was “like the rapid explosions of a string of firecrackers.”
Elisha Frost was mortally wounded at the first volley, but still had sufficient strength and consciousness to fire several fatal shots, for it is claimed that he killed three men after falling. When his body was examined, four wounds were found, each of which might have proved fatal.
It is a remarkable fact that this deadly battle, in which twenty shots were fired, occupied just one quarter of a minute, and in this short space of time six men were lying dead. From the moment the two families met in full force, only two words were spoken; Albert Coates was heard to exclaim, “My God!”
The dead and dying were carded into the public hall, where they were examined by the coroner and relatives.
Mrs. Folsome, the wife of the physician at Mendocino and a relative of the Coates family, received the news early the next morning from a man who had ridden all night on horseback. He said to her, “I am very sorry to bring such bad news, but your whole family has been wiped off the face of the earth. Let your husband mount his horse at once, for he may be able to save at least one human life.”
Having asked for details of the tragedy, she expressed a desire to accompany her husband, but the messenger answered, “I have no time to give any details; and you most certainly can not go with the doctor, as it will be necessary to ride all night and ride like the devil.”
Knowing that her husband would not object, Mrs. Folsome made up her mind to go with him at whatever cost. She had been trained to ride from youth, was quite accustomed to hardships, and told the stableman to saddle both horses and bring them to the door. This was rapidly done, and with the stranger as guide they were ready to start back along the dusty road he had just traversed.
By this time the dreadful news had spread throughout the valley; many of the neighbors saddled their horses and declared their intention of following the doctor. The physician was a man with exceptional nerve, who always kept a cool head. Realizing that one-half of the men were anxious to go out of mere curiosity, and that their presence, on account of the dust, would only make the trip more unpleasant, he decided they could not accompany them. One or two of the men said that they “intended to go anyway, and would like to see the man who could stop them.”
Drawing his revolver from his pocket, the doctor said, “I will kill the first man that tries to follow us.”
The guide and Mrs. Folsome started on the long ride, while the physician rode behind with his pistol in hand, and not a man attempted to follow, for they knew how determined he was.
As they drew near to the scene of the tragedy Mrs. Folsome fainted, but the doctor soon had her on his saddle before him and kept up the same clip until they reached the town, where the victims had been taken. As they drew near to the hall the travelers learned that the man whom they had ridden so far to save was beyond help.
On entering, Mrs. Folsome and her husband looked upon a harrowing scene. Wives, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of the dead men knelt beside their loved ones, and as they mingled their tears one could hear their lamentations many yards from the building. The tragic sight—the frantic widows calling in vain to their dead husbands—had a strange effect upon the remaining members of the two families, who walked around without a thought of revenge or fear. A chastened and wiser spirit prevailed from that time forth, and the people of Little Lake enjoyed a long period of peace.
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