Monday, February 24, 2020

Rémi and the Bandit

Rémi Nadeau - freighter, hotelier, entrepreneur - is the one dead Frenchman every Angeleno should know about.

In the next entry, I'll cover what we know to be true about Rémi's remarkable life. Today, I'll tell you a story - a legend, really - about two very different people who (allegedly) formed an unlikely friendship.

In the days when most of California was undeveloped, bandits often preyed upon stagecoaches, freight wagons, and anyone who dared travel too far from civilization. The most notorious bandit of them all was Tiburcio Vasquez.

Strangely, Rémi Nadeau's freighters were never attacked by Vasquez or his gang.

Ranchers and business leaders assumed he was just lucky. But the story - if it's true - is more interesting than sheer dumb luck.

One day, while accompanying a mule team through the treacherous desert, Rémi Nadeau came upon a wounded man who was stranded with no food or water, a broken wagon, and a damaged harness. He was too weak to mount his own horse.

Rémi tended to the man's injuries, carried him to the next freighting station, and left instructions that the man be cared for there. He also instructed his employees to fix the stranger's wagon and harness.

The stranger greeted Rémi when he arrived at the station on his return trip, offering payment for his board and the repairs to his wagon and harness. Rémi declined, saying he didn't want to be paid for what anyone would do for him in those circumstances.

The stranger asked Rémi if he had ever heard of the bandit Vasquez. He had.

The stranger revealed, "Mr. Nadeau, I am Vasquez, and I will tell you now, so that you may rest at ease in your mind, so long as I live none of my men will ever bother you or your teams or any of your property, and I will pass the word along to others that I, Vasquez, wish Nadeau and whatever is his to be respected."

And with that, the stranger rode off.

Supposedly, Rémi's wife scolded him for not turning Vasquez over to the authorities. (Vasquez had escaped from San Quentin.)

Rémi's take? "Freighting is my business and so long as my freighters are not bothered by Vasquez, Vasquez is not bothered by Nadeau."

Fast forward to 1874.

According to legend, Nevada Senator William Stewart won a silver mine in the Cerro Gordo area (it isn't clear which one) in a card game. Upon hearing that the losing players planned to get their revenge by stealing the next shipment of silver, the Senator thwarted them by having the shipment cast in two enormous ingots weighing 500 pounds each.

After a few hours, the would-be thieves gave up. The Senator arranged for Rémi Nadeau to transport the ingots to Los Angeles with two teams of mules, each wagon carrying one of the massive silver bars.

The mule teams were intercepted by Vasquez en route. History doesn't record HOW Vasquez managed to steal a 500-pound silver ingot (this is a legend, after all), but supposedly, he took only one of the ingots and left the other.

Vasquez was captured May 18, 1874, at his desert hideout, now known as Vasquez Rocks. He was tried and sentenced in San José not long after his capture.

Despite being guilty of numerous crimes, Vasquez was a very popular figure, and had many visitors while behind bars awaiting execution. One of those visitors was, supposedly, Rémi Nadeau.

It's said that Rémi asked "I saved your life once, mi amigo, and we had an agreement that you would never rob my freighters. Why did you do this?"

Vasquez is said to have replied "A card dealer friend had tipped me off to the silver and I also had an obligation to him. That is why I took only one ingot from you."

We may never know how much truth went into this story (one of my older books practically treats the  first half of the tale as gospel), but it's certainly a legendary story about two legendary men.