Innocent Bystander: Presenting the Next Great Western Movie

The people who have written and directed some of our more critically and commercially successful movies of the Western genre in recent years have played fairly fast and loose with the ascertainable facts (for example, the lavishly embroidered Butch Cassidy), with the maximum plausible death toll (for example, The Wild Bunch), and with the palpable imbecility of their protagonists (for example, Bonnie’s Clyde, who was transformed, at the stroke of a Royal, from a murderous dim bumpkin to a classic urban case of impotence according to Jules Feiffer). That understood, I hope nobody will take umbrage at my audacity if I present an idea for a new Western epic that features, among other things, two lone men of intelligence and principle pitted against an unscrupulous industrial empire; one small massacre; five dazzlingly successful train robberies; five full-scale shoot-outs; one foiled prison break and one successful one; one eighteen-month manhunt with odds of 1500 to one against the hunted; one touching love affair cut short by death; one casualty list of fourteen dead and twenty-four wounded; one fugitive dying with more lead on his person than the physician had ever seen before; one savagely ironic ending in which the wife and child of one of the outlaws go on stage in a melodrama based on his life in order to raise money for his legal fees; and, from start to finish, a strict adherence to historical fact.

I’m talking, of course, about the strange and eminently cinematic case of John Sontag and Christopher Evans, two now-forgotten popular heroes who allegedly, though never provably, carried on an inspired guerrilla war against the Southern Pacific Railroad during the early 1890s. Sontag, a Minnesotan and former brakeman for the SP, blamed the railroad when he was injured on the job and made permanently lame in one of the sketchy company hospitals; Evans, a Canada-born Vermonter and former Indian scout who was also a serious reader (of Darwin, Huxley, and Shakespeare) and writer (of Eurasia, a utopian novel published in San Francisco), could never forgive the SP for having unconscionably multiplied the price of land to San Joaquin Valley settlers beyond the announced $2.50 an acre, thus causing many farmers (including relatives of Evans’ wife and, some sources say, Evans himself) to lose their holdings and to be forced out completely. The bad feeling between the farmers and the railroad had first come to a head in May of 1880, when, at Mussel Slough, an SP agent and a U.S. Marshal escalated a dispossession proceeding into a gun battle which left five farmers and two officers dead; seventeen farmers were tried and jailed for their part in an affray in which they had fired only in selfdefense.

Evans’ general dislike of the Southern Pacific was probably reinforced throughout the eighties as he met the harassed local farmers in the course of his duties as the manager of three Bank of California granaries; his own uncertain fortunes took a turn for the worse when a livery stable he had just opened at Modesto burnt to the ground, killing all his livestock. In any case, the first of the mysterious series of train robberies occurred in February, 1889; two masked men stopped an SP train, dynamited the express car, shot a trainman fatally, and made off with about $5000 from the express-car safe. No clue to the robbers was found, nor did the police and SP agents have better luck when the crime was repeated, this time with a take of $20,000 and no deaths, a year later. Early in 1891, a third robbery led the police to some false arrests, before a fourth holdup, at Modesto, proved that the bandits were still at large and resulted in the serious wounding of an SP detective. Finally, in August, 1892, the robbers struck for the fifth and last time, dynamiting an express car and making off with 125 pounds of silver coin.

Now, at last—and largely because a young man named George Sontag, John’s brother, had spoken indiscreetly about being a passenger on the held-up train—detectives were led to suspect Evans and Sontag of the crimes. Two of them went to Evans’ home in Visalia to question him. As they entered, they saw John Sontag coming into the house at the rear. Without knocking, they walked into the living room, asked Chris Evans’ pretty sixteen-year-old daughter, Eva, for Sontag’s whereabouts, and when she told them he wasn’t there (for she had no way of knowing he’d just come in), called her “a damned little liar.”

Eva ran to the barn and told her father two strangers had accosted and insulted her; Christopher Evans picked up a gun, and a shoot-out ensued in which both detectives were wounded, and Sontag and Evans fled in the detectives’ wagon.

This was the start of what one informal historian calls “the greatest manhunt California had known.” Against a force of three thousand men all told, Evans and Sontag had only their superior tactical sense and the fact that the country was on their side and up in arms against the excesses of the railroad, which Frank Norris had dubbed “The Octopus.” Their clever tactics began to pay dividends at once. After eluding a posse on the night of their escape, they returned to Evans’ house, dined, provisioned their wagon, and killed another inquisitive officer, who had staked out the house.

While Evans and Sontag roamed the Sierra, George Sontag had gone to jail for his almost certainly imaginary role in the train robbery. Eva Evans and some other friends arranged to smuggle guns in to George and his fellow prisoners, but the attempted breakout was a failure, in which three convicts were killed and six injured, including George himself, who was crippled for life.

Meanwhile, the railroad bent every effort toward the capture, dead or alive, of the two presumed train robbers. A $10,000 reward was announced, dozens of special agents and police were deputized, packs of hounds and pairs of Indian trackers were put on the scent, and the hills became so congested with armed men that no fewer than eleven deputies managed to shoot each other. All this activity, though, began to produce a predictable result: Evans and Sontag were slowly brought to bay. After eluding a gunfight at Young’s Cabin, the two fugitives were ambushed by a U.S. Marshal and his posse at Stone Corral. Firing back from the inadequate cover of a manure pile, both men were grievously wounded in the course of the night: Evans’ left arm was nearly severed, his right was immobilized by a shoulder wound, and his right eye was destroyed by a charge of buckshot; Sontag was shot repeatedly in the right arm, side, and chest– not to mention numerous flesh wounds.

During the small hours, Evans somehow managed to make his escape, but Sontag, weak from loss of blood, tried ineffectually to kill himself with two disfiguring but superficial shots to the face. Next morning, he awoke to find himself ringed by deputies. He was taken to Visalia jail, where he died, and where the physician volunteered the statement that he’d never seen so much lead in one body before.

Evans, astonishingly, survived to give himself up, on condition that the reward money should go to his wife. In jail, after the amputation of his arm, he had lost none of his utopian dreamer’s cunning: with the connivance of Ed Morrell, a waiter at a Fresno restaurant, who included two revolvers in his jail-delivered blueplate special, he freed himself and headed, one weary time more and now armless and eyeless, or at least monocular, for the hills. The police, also sadder and wiser, attempted no shoot-out; instead, they lured the serious paterfamilias Evans home, where he was quietly subdued with the message that one of his children was sick and asking for him. He was captured by a heavy posse and remanded for trial.

Before his last excursion at large, Evans had been the subject of a bitter, touching, and unparalleled public enterprise. One R. C. White, a San Francisco melodramatist, had written a play called, appropriately, Evans & Sontag.

To ensure its success, he offered a quarter of the net profits to Mrs. Evans and Eva if they would play themselves in the performance. To pay Chris Evans’ lawyers, they agreed; while Mrs. Evans shrank diffidently into the background, the handsome Eva—who had been engaged to Sontag at the time of his death—galloped onstage on a black charger and won a bold headline from the San Francisco Examiner: “Eva Evans Given a Genuinely Enthusiastic Reception and Proves to Be an Actress.” In 1894, despite all the efforts of his family and friends, her father was sentenced to life in Folsom; in 1911, through the intervention of the late Governor Hiram Johnson, an ancient foe of the Southern Pacific, he was paroled, and moved to Portland with his family for the last six years of his life. According to Stewart Holbrook—who, along with Alvin F. Harlow and C. G. Glasscock, is Evans’ principal modern biographer—Frank Coulter, a violin-maker who had known Evans in Modesto in the early nineties and had become reacquainted with him in Portland, found it hard to believe that this “soft-spoken and genial sort of man had successfully defied the Southern Pacific and the State of California—at that time almost the same thing—for so many years.”

Clearly, Evans and Sontag were brave, resourceful, and, in their own quite countercultural way, principled far beyond most of the childish and cretinous sadists—from Billy the Kid and the Daltons to Bonnie and Clyde—whose thoughtless, bloody deeds are so frequently celebrated on film today. Evans and Sontag were men who lived and died for something real, and in doing so, wrote a curious and imperishable footnote to our history; a film about them, with all its implications for today, might carry the Western to new and higher ground.