My Forty Years Scribblin's
The Campfire Tales of “Smoke” Deneau

Montana Journal January - February 1999 Volume 14, Number 1 by Mildred Chaffin Compiled from information provided by Wayne H. Lang, Marie Lang, the Copenhavers, and Howard Fly.

How many were true—of the wild stories that sprang from the lips of the "Old West" character, "Smoke" Deneau? Granted, some were questionable. However, some were proven and all were sufficiently remarkable to hold an audience spellbound, whether out on the trail, at a hunting camp, or entertaining guests around the campfire at Tom Edwards' White Tail guest ranch.

Smoke was born Alfred P. Deneau of French and Indian parentage. Information from the Powell County courthouse in Deer Lodge, Montana gives his birth place only as Michigan and his date of birth as July 24, 1875. His moccasins made their first imprints in the dust of the adventure trail when his father took him to Deadwood, South Dakota at the age of ten. There he became an errand boy for a saloon that was frequented by Deadwood Dick and Calamity Jane. A vacant space appears in the story before he returned to live with his mother and killed his step father!

At age fourteen, he traded his boyhood for a lifelong journey down the hoot-owl trail. He found refuge with the Sioux where he lived for several years and while still in his teen years took an Indian wife. What became of this union might never be known but apparently his indoctrination by the Sioux made him plenty tough. He was destined to become, among other things, a cowboy, miner, packer, woodsman, gun slinger, camp and roundup cook, and member of an outlaw gang. He is next heard of as a paid participant in the Johnson County Cattle War. That he was one of Butch Cassidy's riders was verified in the late 1970s when a ninety-year old man at Copenhavers' hunting camp related an incident in Wyoming when the gang rode into Rawlins, shooting into the air, yelling and otherwise advertising their arrival. As a very young child, the old man was playing in the dirt in the street when he was scooped up and carried through the town on the front of a young rider's saddle while the uproar continued.

"Where do you live?" the outlaw asked.

"Over there," the child replied. The rider took him "over there."

"Whose chickens are these?" the rider inquired.

"They're my mama's. We sell eggs." The rider handed the boy over to his frantic mother, pulled a gun and shot the heads off several chickens. He handed the bleeding birds to the frantic woman who was known to serve meals along with her egg sales to make a living for her children. "And," the old man remembered, "He handed her a twenty dollar gold piece for each hen and stated. 'We'll be back at six o'clock for supper.'" Copenhaver asked the old man if he knew the rider's name.

"He didn't seem to have a name," the oldster said. "They just called him 'Smoke.'" Mr. Copenhaver inquired, "Did he have a crooked nose and one blemished eye?"

"How did you know that?" the old man was aghast.

"Smoke had told me that story so many times," said Copenhaver. "And I didn't believe a word of it—until then."

An inquiry directed to the Wyoming Historical Society didn't list any gunslinger named Alfred P. Deneau in the Johnson County Cattle War, but the Historical Society did concede that some gunslingers operated under an alias. Smoke claimed that he was pardoned by the governor of Wyoming along with several others for their part in the affair but when succeeding events In Wyoming got too hot for him he fled to South America. Not daring to put down roots, he is next heard from in the Yukon where he hired out as a packer carrying ninety pound packs on his back for the gold seekers at a dollar a pound.

Seeming to relive events of days gone by, Smoke told of taking Jim Hill, of Northern Pacific Railroad fame, and his daughter on an extended pack trip through northern Montana and Glacier Park. He recited incidents from his trapping and mining days, of punching cattle in Wyoming and Nebraska, and of packing for the Forest Service. And, as verified by Tom Edwards of the White Tail Ranch, during World War II when there was a shortage of manpower one of the big mining companies in Butte hired Smoke as a guard because of his reputation. There he shot a man in the line of duty.

Smoke's experiences in the Klondike generated the fantasy that consumed so many others and he left the Yukon to take up mining at various points in Montana.

And, like those many others, he failed to find the mother lode. Eventually he filed a claim on the North Fork of the Blackfoot several miles north east of Ovando.

From his Indian forebearers Smoke inherited an affinity for those things relative to nature. His cabin home and its furnishings were created from materials at hand. His cabin home was fashioned with log walls and puncheon floor and roof. The furnishings were similar in taste including a hand hewn pole bed, and elkhide covered "easy chair," hangers fashioned from odd shaped tree limbs, and a wash stand fashioned from a tree top with finger-like prongs to hold his wash basin.

Now the years were creeping up on Smoke. He was spending less and less time in the mine. Tom Edwards gave him a place to stay at the White Tail Ranch. His activities from that time leave no room for questioning. He became a general handy man, building cabins, fixing harness, making pack saddles, and general maintenance work. And not the least of his capabilities was entertaining guests at the evening bonfire sessions. Perhaps the flames reflected scenes from his reckless years that only he could see. No one could attest to the veracity of his wild stories, but, strictly speaking, no one could dispute them either.

Witnesses tell of Smoke's incredible prowess with a six-shooter. Howard Copenhaver watched him throw a small can of milk into the air and put four bullets in it before it hit the ground...then rolled it along the ground with more bullets. He was seen to shoot both horns off a charging bull from his saddle horse with two shots. The irate cow critter relented—fast—pointed his tail toward the sky [and ran] off across the prairie! He was seen to shoot marbles off fence posts at a gallop and, unbelievably, he filed the front sights off his guns. When he was asked why he did that he replied, "Using the front sight of a gun is the quickest way to get yourself killed that I can think of." Those who knew him best said he was never without a pistol that he wore inside his black baggy pants.

When visited by Wayne Lang and his wife in 1947-48 Smoke's health was failing, and he had moved to a cabin in Helmville. The Langs were back-packing up the North Fork and he asked them to retrieve some mining papers from under his bed. They found that a grizzly had torn the door off the cabin and inside was total devastation. The cabin's contents were ripped apart and thrown into the corner occupied by the bed. When they had worked their way through the wreckage they came upon a case of dynamite bearing the warning—dangerous after January 1, 1942— five years before!

"Needless to say we backed off," says Lang. "When we told Smoke he said we should have thrown it in the Blackfoot."

Smoke left his troubled world April 30, 1952, dying in his cabin at Helmvllle without family or friends. He lies buried in an unmarked grave in Deer Lodge, Montana. His mine was swallowed up in the Scapegoat Wilderness and his cabin burned by the Forest Service. His fabulous stories live on in the minds of his listeners and one visible mark on the face of nature remains—Smoke's Cabin Bridge, near his cabin site on the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. As remembered by the Langs, "He was the most unique character I have ever come across, a character right out of the Old West."