Up until her death in 1914 at the age of 82, Old West badass "Stagecoach" Mary Fields had a standing bet at her local saloon: Five bucks and a glass of whiskey said she could knock out any cowboy in Cascade, Montana with a single punch.
After the third or fourth dumb asshole tried to take her up on it, nobody ever had the balls to do it again.
A mysterious, behemoth, don't-fuck-with-me woman too badass for a backstory, best guesses say that Stagecoach Mary was born on or around 1832… although up until her death the date itself was such a mystery that the town of Cascade closed their schools and businesses to celebrate her birthday whenever the hell this hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-swearing frontierswoman told them to – which was, on average, about twice a year, usually once around March and again sometime in October. We know that she spent the first thirty years of her life as a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee, and that she'd spent some time working on a Mississippi steamboat Proud Mary Tina Turner-style, but aside from all that rollin' on the river stuff all we can truly be certain of is that this six-foot tall, two hundred pound bulldozer of a woman rolled into the rough-and-tumble frontier town of Cascade in 1884 with a six-shooter and a flask of whiskey in her work apron, a well-worn ten-gauge shotgun on her lap, and a home-rolled cigar clenched between her teeth, just daring anyone to fuck with her or look at her funny or give her one reason to break his face into bone splinters with an iron-fisted right hook. She would go on to be the toughest goddamned mail carrier you'd ever want to meet, a Montana legend, and the sort of over-the-top head-crushing asskicker that forged the Great American West.
Mary rode into Montana from Toledo, Ohio, where she'd been working as a carpenter at a Roman Catholic convent. Apparently one of her best friends, a woman named Sister Amadeus (who may or may not have had some personal connection that dated back to Mary's time as a slave in Tennessee), had come out to Cascade to open a school for Blackfoot Indian girls, but when the dainty Sister Amadeus got sick with pneumonia and was hacking her delicate little lungs out our girl Mary jumped on a coach and hauled ass out there to help her. Mary took a job working for the Ursuline Nuns at St. Peter's Mission in Cascade, where she made nine bucks a week to do hard-as-fuck menial labor shit like chopping wood, digging holes, and building a schoolhouse and a chapel with little more than her bare hands, a pocket full of nails, and a carpenter's level. When she wasn't tending the chickens, maintaining the convent's garden, or swearing and headbutting people unconscious for even the slightest offenses (one nun famously remarked, "May God help anyone who walks on the lawn after Mary has cut it"), the 52 year-old badass made weekly 120-mile supply runs out to Helena to pick up food and medical gear for the convent.
Visit Lovely 1884 Cascade, Montana!
Now, running a stagecoach a couple hundred miles by yourself in the Old West was no fucking picnic – this was a lawless land, filled with dangerous tomahawk-hucking Sioux Indian war bands, murderous gunslinging outlaw bandit douchebags, and all manner of vicious wild beasts capable of shredding a person into ground beef, and if a six-shooter bullet didn't find a way to bring about your premature untimely gruesome death the forty degree below zero wind chills would. On more than one occasion thick snow drifts blocked off Mary's route, piling up so high the horses couldn't move through it, and since there was no shelter anywhere for miles she would survive the night not by taking shelter, but by hopping out of the cart and pacing back and forth on foot next to the stagecoach in an effort to keep warm. Then, if they died, I'm assuming she Han Solo Ice Planet Hoth'ed it, but who knows.
One of the more famous tales of Stagecoach Mary's badassitude came one evening when was charging through the countryside on one of her runs to deliver food and medicine to underprivileged nuns when suddenly out of nowhere a pack of psychotic fucking wolves charged in and attacked her horses, freaking them out, ripping them up, and flipping the entire cart on its side. Mary jumped out, used the overturned cart as cover to keep her from being mauled from the back when she wasn't looking, and then, with only a small lamp as her light source, she fought off several attacks from this pack of ferocious beasts throughout the night, first by blasting them with a shotgun at close range, and then switching to her revolver when she ran out of buckshot. The next morning she muscled the cart back upright, got everything back in place, tracked down some of the horses, made the rest of the trip back, and brought everything to the convent intact – except for a keg of molasses that had cracked during the battle, which the asshole Bishop made her pay for out of pocket (that guy was a serious bastard).
These are the sort of stagecoach folk Mary rolled with.
When Stagecoach Mary wasn't cracking rabid wolves in the fucking face with the stock of her ten-gauge or single-handedly building schoolhouses for poor Native American girls, you could find her in the saloons of Cascade drinking men under the table like the chick from Raiders of the Lost Ark and chomping on homemade cigars so potent that hardly any gunslinger in town had the stomach to handle them. You'd think maybe some folks would have tried to fuck with her, considering that she was, you know, a black woman in a society that at the time wasn't particularly well-known for its attitudes towards racial and gender equality, but Stagecoach Mary wasn't the sort of badass chick that was going to let people tell her what the fuck she was going to do or how she was going to do it. At a time when non-prostitute women weren't allowed to drink at saloons, she received special permission from the Mayor to be served at any bar in the city any time she wanted, for life. Any time some asshole messed with her, she fucked him up. Like, one time a guy called her a rude name outside a saloon, so she looked at him for a second, said nothing, then grabbed a big fucking rock out of the street and clubbed him in the skull with it repeatedly until other cowboys finally restrained her. This chick gained such a reputation for being the shit out of uppity gunslingers that didn't show her the proper respect that the Great Falls Examiner newspaper once cited this hard-drinking, quick-tempered asskicker as having "broken more noses than any other person in Montana," and nobody ever debated the claim.
Well, as you might imagine, you can only be a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Convent employee for so long before your endless profanity-laced diatribes start to rub the saintly-types the wrong way, but for Mary, it wasn't her mouth but her unquenchable thirst for vengeance that eventually got her in trouble. Apparently one day the convent handyman got all butt-hurt that Mary made more money than him, so he went around town passive-aggressively bitching and whining and sobbing hysterically to anyone who would listen about how a black woman shouldn't make more money than him because oh boo hoo woe is me I'm so fucking emo it's a tragedy and I'm totally posting about it on MySpace when I get home. When Mary got wind of what was going down, she cracked her knuckles, rolled up the sleeves of her work blouse, pulled out the break-top five-shooter Smith & Wesson .38 she kept under her apron at all times, stormed out behind the nunnery, challenged that jackass to a duel, and in the ensuing close-quarter gun battle she literally popped a cap in his ass, shooting him in the buttocks while emerging unscathed herself.
Naturally, this got her fired. But it was totally worth it. Seriously, fuck that guy. And fuck the Bishop for firing her, even though discharging a firearm with malicious intent on the grounds of a Roman Catholic convent is probably about as worthy a cause for dismissal as you can probably ever hope for.
A S&W .38 "Lemon Squeezer" like the kind Mary carried with her at all times.
Also pictured: Whiskey. Which is also appropriate.
Now out of work, Mary opened two restaurants in Cascade, but they both failed because she gave out too many free meals to needy people and also because she kind of sucked at cooking. So in 1895, she applied for a job with the United States Postal Service delivering mail throughout the Montana Territory. For her job interview, she and a dozen hardened Old West cowboys half her age were asked to hitch a team of six horses to a stagecoach as quickly as possible. The 60-year old Mary Fields blew them all away, hitching the horses and then having time left over to run to the saloon, grab a shot, come back, and smoke a cigar while laughing at the other cowpokes. She became the second woman – and the first black person of any gender – to work for the U.S. Post Office.
Now, being a postal employee might not trigger images of ultimate gunslinging badassitude, but running a postal route in 1880s Montana was basically the Old West version of driving a mail truck through Boyz in da Hood-era Los Angeles on check day. For the next six years, 60+ year old Mary Fields rode a stagecoach packed with money and expensive parcels through the Montana territories delivering mail anywhere, any time, through any terrain and weather and all manner of danger. Braving blizzards, heat waves, driving rain and screaming winds, Mary never missed a day of work, never failed to deliver a single letter, and was never late once. Fuck, I've been late to my day job three times this week and the bus route is walking distance from my house, and here's this chick steering a horse-drawn carriage up a mountain cliff to deliver a thank-you card from grandma to some backwater farmer on time. If the snow got so high that the horses couldn't keep going (this is fairly common in a place with regular sub-zero wind chills), Mary would tie them to a tree, throw her mail bag over her shoulder, and fucking walk ten miles through waist deep snow and twenty mph headwinds to deliver a letter to some random schmuck on a farm in the middle of ass-nowhere Montana. When the weather wasn't completely soul-suckingly frigid she had to worry about outlaws and Indian attacks, although she does mention that the latter wasn't very common – for most Sioux, she was the first black person they'd ever seen, and since they didn't know what the deal was they usually just left her alone. If anyone got a little too close for comfort she of course also carried that trusty ten-gauge shotgun (a ten-gauge, for the record, has an even bigger bore than a twelve-gauge) that according to her personal experience was capable of "cutting a man in half at closer range." It was doing this job where Stagecoach Mary earned her nickname, because any time you needed something delivered on time you didn't fucking call FedEx, you had this chick roll around the west with a boomstick, a pet eagle (!) and a mule named Moses and that was a hell of a lot more reliable than any overnight delivery service you could ever ask for.
Good, bad, I'm the guy with the gun.
Stagecoach Mary retired in 1901and opened the most badass laundry service Cascade, MT has ever seen. Here's an example: One time Mary was at the saloon playing poker and drinking whiskey, when suddenly she heard a voice outside the saloon that caught her attention – it was some deadbeat motherfucker who'd gotten his laundry done but hadn't paid his bill. The 72 year old ex-Postal employee calmly excused herself from the card table, walked outside, grabbed that jerkburger by his shoulder, spun him around, and completely flattened him with one punch. Then she leaned over the guy's crumpled body in the middle of the street and calmly told him the pleasure she'd just derived from busting his face with her fist in was far more enjoyment than she'd ever get from the two bucks he owed her, so they'd just call it even. Thanks for your business, and have a nice day, see you in hell asshole.
When Mary wasn't cleaning clothes and/or people's clocks, she babysat all the kids in town whenever their parents needed to get away, became friends with Gary Cooper (AFI's 11th greatest male film legend of all time, and the dude who played Sgt. York in the movie), got free food and booze anywhere she went, and went to every single home game the Cascade baseball team ever played. According to local sources, she would give flowers from her garden to any player who hit a home run, and rain a hellacious fury of fire and brimstone profanity-laced horribleness on any unlucky umpires who made bullshit infield fly rule calls against the home team. Despite her gruff exterior, Mary was also kind hearted, and so beloved by the town of Cascade that when her home burned down in the fire of 1912, everyone in town got together and built her a new one.
After a life that was far more exciting than anything most people will probably ever experience, Stagecoach Mary Fields finally died of liver failure in 1914. She'd lived to be 82 – no small feat considering she fought wolves, trudged through freezing rain, drank hard, brawled harder, revolted against every cultural stereotype the planet had to offer, and routinely punched out cowboys half her age.
Mary and the Cascades.
Toledo Blade Article
Hazen, Walter. Hidden History. Lorenz, 2004.
Holland, Barbara. They Went Whistling. Random House, 2002.
Slatta, Richard W. The Mythical West. ABC-CLIO, 2001.
Wagner, Tricia Martineau. African American Women of the Old West. Globe Pequot, 2007.
Wishart, David J. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press, 2004.