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Published on Monday, May 16, 2011

Box Canyon

By Mark Hinton


He was just coming down the trail when he heard the first gun shot. He had been riding all afternoon and was tired and was watching the creek that ran along the trail trying to figure out where the biggest trout would be hiding. The sound of the gun echoing in the narrow canyon startled him, and the tall roan he was riding.


Instinctively his hand went to his holster. The colt was in his hand even before he brought the roan to a halt.

When he heard the second shot, he knew that the firing was coming from further down the canyon. He also knew that it was not coming in his direction. But he did not put the colt back into his holster.

Not until after the third and fourth shots did he holster the colt and start forward. About a quarter of a mile down the trail, he rounded a bend where the trail dropped steeply towards a small meadow where two men were target practicing with cans they had lined up along an old wooden fence. They both had pistols and were practicing quick draws. The smaller of the two, who wore a brown derby and a brown shirt, was quicker but he was not very accurate. The bigger one, who looked to be well over six feet and wore a grey Stetson and blue shirt was slow but he was much more accurate.

The rider sat for awhile watching them until the smaller one finally noticed him and told his partner. They put the pistols into their holsters and waited for the tall rider in the black Stetson to come down the trail to where they were.

"You Donavon?" the bigger one asked the rider when he reined in the roan.

"You always put your pistols away before reloading?" Donovan said.

"Huh?" the big man said.

"You got two shells in your gun, he's got three. A man with a half-empty gun is not much good when fighting time comes."

The big man looked at his partner and back at Donavon. It was clear that he was a slow thinker. The little man was not as slow. He pulled out his pistol, pocketed the spent cartridges and re-loaded. He was done reloading before the big man started doing the same.

"How far from here?" Donavan asked as he reached into his vest pocket to pull out the making of a cigarette.

"Maybe 6 miles to Radersburg. The bank is there." said the little man.

Donavan finished rolling the cigarette. He looked over his shoulder at the trail he had come down and the late morning sun.

"Well, we best be riding," he said lighting the cigarette.

The town of Radersburg was long and narrow. It followed the creek. All the way up the creek and into the foothills you could see the usual sluice boxes, tents, and mining tailings that told you that this was a gold camp. Donavan had been to many of them. This one looked more permanent than most but not as permanent or prosperous as some.

"We're staying at a place farther toward the river," Jones said. Along the trail Donavan had learned that the smaller man was named Jones and the larger one was named Riley. He had also learned that the rest of the group had been in Radersburg for over a week by now.

They pulled up to a cabin that overlooked where Crow Creek emptied into the Missouri river. In a corral behind the cabin, Donavan counted 11 horses and two mules.

A man came out of the cabin and took their horses. Jones and Riley went with him. Donavan went into the cabin.

Outside it was still late afternoon and bright, so the cabin seemed dark. It took his eyes awhile to adjust.

"Bout time you got here," he heard someone say. It was Johnson.

He was sitting with three other men at a table. They were playing cards and there was a bottle on the table.

Came as soon as I got your message," he said taking off his hat.

One of the men who was sitting down stood up and indicated that Donavan should take his chair.

Donavan sat down and poured himself a glass of whiskey. He looked at it but did not drink it.

"You have a small army, Johnson. You expecting a war?

Johnson took the bottle and refilled his glass.

"That's why I called you," he said taking a drink.

"You know that I do not like working big. Big means more complications, more potential for mistake."

"How about you and I take a ride back to town," Johnson said, "and look things over.... then you decide."

Donavan stood up. He had not touched his drink.

They were on a ridge above the town. The bank and the courthouse were the only brick buildings in town. The bank was the bigger of the two. From where they were standing with a spy glass they counted the guards, seven. Four inside the bank, and three outside.

"Are there always seven," Donavan asked.

"For the last week," Johnson answered.

"I would reverse the number," Donavan said lowering the spy glass. "Two or three is all you need inside. You want more men outside...."

"Wish I could get a closer look," he said turning toward Johnson who was rolling a cigarette.

"Too many people know what you look like, " Johnson said reaching into his pocket for a match.

"When they moving the gold?" Donavan asked.

"Three days." he said lighting the cigarette. His Stetson was gray but his beard and eyes were black. In the match light his eyes seemed even blacker. "They take it down that road," he said pointing to a road that ran away from the creek toward the river and then west, "along the river, and into Townsend. The train will be waiting there."

Donavan turned back toward town and raised the spyglass again.

"I still think I would reverse the way they deploy the men," he said.

The next day Donavan and Johnson rode down the river road towards Townsend. The foothills that followed the river were brown and covered with sagebrush and prickly pear. Across the river was a broad, green valley and a snowcapped peak.

"Its pretty country," Donavan said.

Johnson only grunted.

They found two likely places to set up an ambush. The first was a place where the road dropped through a stand of cottonwoods and over a little creek. The gulch that ran up through the foothills was narrow where it hit the cottonwoods and the road, but when they followed the creek up they found that it quickly broadened and left a number of ways to to get into the hills and to hide.

The other was where the road passed a box canyon. Johnson had scouted the canyon earlier and found that there was a narrow trail that led up the backside of the canyon and out onto the rim above. It was steep, but they were both good riders and so made the trip rather quickly. From the top of the canyon they could see the road and the river and the big, broad valley.

"The advantage of this narrow trail," Johnson was saying, "Is that one man could hold it against an army... And from up here you have almost as many directions to go as over to the creek."

"It is closer to town though," Donavan said getting off the roan.

"More of a surprise to have men riding out of... and then back into a box canyon," Johnson said getting off his mount.

Donavan was quiet for awhile, looking at the river and the valley.

"It is beautiful country. A man could live here," he said.

"Hell, with half a million dollars a man could live anywhere he wanted to," Johnson said taking off his hat and slapping it against his leg.

Donavan reached into his pocket and started making a cigarette. Johnson waited.

"This is my last job," Donavan said, lighting the cigarette. "I want to get a little place with a creek and cottonwoods...."

"You've said that before," Johnson said getting back onto the horse. "I'll meet you back at the cabin."

Donavan watched Johnson go down the trail, out the canyon, and back towards town. For a long time he sat looking at the valley and the snow dusted peak.

The next day the men in the cabin spent their time cleaning guns, checking loads, and playing cards. Donavan preferred being outside, away from the talk and the noise. Johnson rode into town for one last look at things.


When he came back a little after noon he brought two bottles of whiskey. One bottle he took in to the men in the cabin. The other he carried with him out to where Donavan was sitting on a log beneath some cottonwoods, beyond the corral.

"Wagon they are using for the transfer arrived," he said sitting down next to Donavan. He opened the bottle of whiskey took a sip and handed it to Donavan.

"Same routine they use in Marysville. Two guns inside with the gold, a driver, a shotgun, and the rest of the men on horses."

Donavan took a swig and handed the bottle back to Johnson.

"We never hit Marysville."

"We never had enough men," Johnson said taking a long drink. "Now we have enough," he said offering the bottle back to Donavan.

Donavan shook his head. "But are they the right kind of men."

Johnson looked at him. "You worry too much," he said.

"You don't worry enough," Donavan said turning back to look toward the river and the big mountain.

Johnson started to say something but stopped. He got back up and headed back to the cabin. He took the bottle with him.

In the late afternoon the men started leaving the cabin one at a time or in pairs. Men traveling alone or in pairs did not draw much attention, but a big group of men traveling together was sure to be noticed.

By late evening they were all assembled above the box canyon and far enough back that they could not be seen from the road. They built a small fire and ate their dinner. The men had been noisy in the cabin earlier in the day, but now they were quiet and spoke in whispers.

Donavan counted 16 horses and 14 riders. When he had first started he had worked alone. Now he was working with a dozen men he did not know and one that he knew too well to trust.

When night came it was cool and the sky clear. While the others slept or at least lay down in the bedrolls, Donavan sat on a rock smoking and looking out into the night. There was a three-quarters moon and the river and the big valley were white and still. He was sitting on the rock long after the last coals in the fire had gone out.

In the morning, before first light, they worked their way down into the canyon. They divided into two groups. Johnson had taken eight men and they were lined up along the east side of the canyon. Donavan had taken four riders and the two extra horses and was along the west side. The men were standing next to their horses and holding the reins when the first faint rays of sun hit the road in front of the canyon.

The plan was simple. When the wagon with the gold and the escorts crossed the front of the canyon, they would hit them hard. If there were scouts ahead of the wagon and they looked into the canyon they would see nothing but shadows and rock walls in the dark canyon. Johnson's group would ride first. Donavan and his group would hit the stragglers.

They stood next to the mounts for a long time before they heard the faint, distant sound of horses and wagons. The men mounted their horses and waited. From where Donavan sat he could see across the canyon, but could not see Johnson or his men, so deep were the canyon's shadows. He could not see the entrance to the canyon either, but he did not have to. Johnson and his men had a perfect view and they would know when to go.

When Johnson's men finally moved Donovan could see them. They rode out of the shadows into the light that was streaming in now from the direction of the canyon mouth. They had their pistols out and were riding hell bent for leather. Their first shots and their rebel yells echoed along the canyon walls.

Donavan was just turning to say something to the man seated on the pinto behind him when he heard the sound. He snapped his head back toward the riders. Even before he saw Johnson cart wheeling over backwards out of his saddle he knew what the sound was. Another rider and his horse also went down, the riders hands flying upwards even as the horse crumpled forward and went down.

"Gatling gun," Donavan yelled.

"Everybody out the back door," he called turning his mount. He was at the tail end of the group that fled toward the rocks that marked the trail up and out. As they rode they heard gunfire and the distinctive rattle of the Gatling. The noises bouncing off the canyon walls were deafening.

When the first riders in the Donavan's group hit the bottom of the trail, they turned their mounts into the cliff face and started up the steep incline. The first rider got about half of the way up the steep trail to a switch back corner when he suddenly pitched over backwards off his horse, his hat flying off his head. His big bay reared and tried to turn back down the trail. If there would not have been other horses and riders behind him the bay might have made the turn on the narrow trail. It didn't. Donavan was at bottom of the trail, just starting up when he saw the bay crash into another rider and his mount driving both animals and the rider off the steep cliff. Animals and rider screamed as they dropped out of sight.

Even while the screams were hanging in the air, the next rider on the cliff switchback took a bullet in his shoulder and dropped off his horse. Donavan looked up. He could not see the top of the trail... but he knew... there was at least one shooter there. They were trapped.

"Off the trail," he yelled to the last man in his group. "It's a trap."

He turned and headed back the way they had come, into the shadows on the west side of the canyon. The other rider followed.

From the direction of the canyon entrance they still heard sporadic gunshots. Not the Gatling gun, but pistols and rifles. Donavan got off his mount and scanned the top of the canyon. He could not see any movement up there. He tried to focus on where he knew the trail came up at the top. But from where he was he could not see the two boulders that marked the trail head. The other rider was still on his horse. He was looking at Donavan. It was Jones.

"There is one shooter at least at the top of the trail. And there is a Gatling gun and an small army that direction. Name your poison." Donavan said.

Jones pointed over his shoulder at the trail. Donavan shook his head.

Jones jumped off his horse. "Without a horse... a man might make it."

"No," Donavan said, "In the dark you could. But I have been up on top. The last 150 feet is so wide open a blind man could spot you. And his blind brother would shoot you before you got 10 feet."

He pointed in the direction of the canyon mouth where the sound of gunfire had died. "Our only hope is to surprise them and go out that way."

He pointed back towards the trail. "Right now the shooter on the top can't see us. If we're lucky, he might not even know we are here. But if he moves a little towards the east, he will see us plain as day when the sun gets higher."

Donavan started getting on his roan.

"The men out front will be celebrating their victory or letting down. We are going to ride out of the dark and right through them."

As Jones was getting back onto his horse, Donavan said, "Don't stop for nothing, 'cause nothing is gonna stop for you."

When Donavan broke around the last rock and out of the shadows he was riding with the reins in his teeth and a colt in each hand. Two men were standing over a body a horse and rider. One was tall and had a brown hat, the other was short and stocky and was holding his hat in his hand. The one with the hat went down with Donavan's first shot, the second from one from Jones.

The three men at the wagon weren't ready either. The Gatling gun was now empty and two of the men were cleaning it while the other watched. When they heard the shots and the pounding hooves they turned in the direction of the canyon. When they saw the two men go down the two men in the wagon dived low into the box. The one that was standing next to the wagon tried running back towards his horse and where his rifle was. He ran right across Donavan's line of site. Two of Donavan's shots hit the man, the first in his thigh and the second in his jaw. He was dead before he hit the ground.

One man who was alone along the west side of the canyon, looking at the body of two outlaws, already had his rifle out. When he heard the first shots, he turned. When he saw the first rider rounding the corner, reins in his teeth and guns blazing, he raised his Winchester and fired. His shot missed the first rider but hit a second rider who was just coming around the corner. That rider slumped but did not fall.

The man was a good and careful shot. As the two riders moved in the direction of the wagon, he took careful aim at the lead rider. His first shot fell behind. But his second hit home. The rider dropped his left arm and one of his two pistols tumbled to the ground. The man with the rifle was just chambering his next round when the man on the second horse changed course and came right at the shooter firing.

As soon as the bullet slammed into his shoulder, Donavan's whole left side went numb. Even as he dropped the pistol in his left hand he dropped lower into the saddle and kept firing. As he was going past the wagon, one of the men in the wagon box looked up just in time to have the top of his head blown off all over the Gatling gun and the other man in the wagon with him.

Just as Donavan passed the wagon a bullet fired by some men who had rifles and were on foot on the eastern side of the canyon slammed into his hip and kidney. It felt like a heavy tug. Another shot came so close to his ear that he ducked even lower, almost falling out of the saddle.

He rode across sagebrush towards the river. The ground was rough and he was pushing the roan hard. He was almost to the river when the roan hit a badger hole and went down. Donavan went head over heals, his pistol flying out of his hand.

It took him a few moments to find his pistol. By then the men at the canyon mouth had finished Long and were mounted and starting their pursuit. Donavan could see them making their way down the sagebrush hill towards him.

The roan was about 20 yards away, limping. Donavan turned toward the river and the cottonwoods that lined its bank. He started running in that direction. Every step was like a hot knife in his hip. But he kept moving.

He made it to the cottonwoods before they started firing. He checked the chamber on the colt. He had one shot remaining. He turned towards the men making their way towards him. They were riding spread out and coming toward him. They were well out of pistol range but he squeezed off a shot in the direction of a tall rider on a big dun.

He didn't hit anything but they stopped advancing and got off their horses. It gave him the time he needed to reload one handed, leaning with his back up against a huge cottonwood.

Donavan moved toward the river. The Missouri was wide here but still fast and strong. He looked up towards the mountain that he had been watching for almost a week. It was white and beautiful in the high, climbing sky.

"This is beautiful country, a man could live here." he said stepping off the bank and into the water.

The water came up to his chest. It was cold and for a moment he did not think he would be able to breathe. When he got his breath, he started walking across the river to the other side.

The men on the hillside saw the outlaw step into the river. He went in with a splash and stood for a moment with the water up to his chest. He started moving but did not get very far before his head went under water. He came up once, but went back underwater soon after. They watched for a long time but never saw his head come back up again. Later they searched the river for his body, but they did not find it. No one ever did.

When they got to his horse and his saddlebags they found out that the outlaw they had been chasing was the famous Jack Donavan. Newspapers from back East sent reporters out to Radersburg to do interviews and stories.

Years later, men told their grandchildren about fighting Jack Donavan and his gang at Box Canyon. When they got to end of the story, the part when Jack Donavan stepped into the river and started walking toward the middle of the Missouri-all of them, even the few who were actually there, forgot to mention the part about him crossing himself just before he stepped into the water and started walking towards that mountain on the other side.



Mark Hinton grew up in Montana and is a freelance writer. He has published a book of poetry called Montana Poems is the webmaster of


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