Authors: Dan Arnold
“It might go that way. I’ll be along, directly. I want to ride around and see what I see.” Bill said, standing up.
He wore striped pants tucked into high moccasins with rawhide soles, a Colt revolver rested casually in his waistband. He was holding the rifle that had been laid across his lap as we talked.
I found myself staring at the rifle. The old man, seeing my interest, spoke up.
“Christian Sharps, Creedmoor rifle. This un’s a .45 caliber breechloader. She’s accurate out to at least a thousand yards. You ever et antelope?”
“That’s more than a half mile. Naturally, I’ve seen many a Sharps carbine or rifle, and the Remington version of them. I’ve heard of Creedmoor and the sharpshooting contests, but I’ve never seen one of those rifles rigged like that before. The engraving is beautiful.”
“You won’t likely see another.”
“Are those sights adjustable?”
“Yep, windage and elevation, front and back. Peep sights the thing.”
We walked outside to the only horse still tied in front of the saloon. It was a spotted horse with a silver worked saddle and bridle. The heavy Spanish spade bit was silver as well. The horse also wore a pencil bosal, He was secured with a neck rope and not tied by the bridal reins.
“Hackamore man, huh?” I asked.
“Yep, picked it up in California from the vaqueros, only way to train a bridle horse.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve spent some time in California myself.
He looked over at Dusty, where he stood untied at the hitching rail across the street.
“Injun pony? He looks mountain bred.” Bill observed.
“He is that.”
Bill untied the neck rope and draped it around his saddle horn. He stepped up on the spotted horse and pulled his sombrero up on his head, shading his face and eyes. He snugged up his stampede string as he held the Creedmoor rifle across the pommel of his saddle. Without saying another word he turned his horse and trotted off across the plank bridge, leaving me standing in the street.
I approached the ranch more carefully this time.
When I came to a place where there was a pile of stones marking the property line, I swung wide and started looking the property over. I topped a rise and saw below me fence posts forming the start of a very long fence line.
Clearly, Sean Murphy had started to fence his land.
It wasn’t common to see vast areas of unfenced ranch land anymore. To help keep livestock off the tracks, the railroads were fenced with barbed wire, down both sides.
Most of the farmers and ranchers had gone to fencing their land with barbed wire. I saw it in Texas and it was becoming the norm here in Colorado as well. This open range land was becoming scarce, especially where all of the land was privately owned. The days of free grazing and wide open spaces were coming to an end.
In the early days of ranching it was all open range. One man’s cattle would graze beside another’s. There would be big roundups a couple of times a year, where the cattle would be sorted, counted and new calves would be branded by the representatives of the various outfits. Apparently they were still doing it here, but Murphy had decided to fence his land.
Was that what had gotten him killed?
From the rise I surveyed the country all around me. It was good grassland with cattle scattered in clusters. Most of them wore the Bar C Bar brand, with here and there a Rocking M or another brand mingled in. There was no sign of riders.
I rode down to the deceptively named Buttercup Creek and rode along it until I came to a good place to cross. Where it narrowed there was good deep water and wherever it widened out it sang and laughed across the rocks and pebbles.
If there was this much steady water, this late in the year, I wondered what would happen when the spring thaw sent melted snow water down the creek.
Shortly, I found a cut bank where cattle had been crossing at one of the wide shallower places.
A single section of land is six hundred and forty acres. The Rocking M, being two sections of land, was twelve hundred and eighty acres, not a big ranch by most standards. The thing that made it special was the location. The soil here supported good grass, the creek was constant and accessible and there were some scattered trees and natural shelter afforded by the terrain. All in all, great cattle land. Because the ranch was on the edge of the mountains, it had access to high mountain meadows with nutrient rich grass-free for the taking–if you could get to it. For the cattle on the Rocking M it could be done with a single day’s drive. Properly managed, this ranch could hold four or five hundred head and still be able to make hay.
The bigger ranches were generally bigger because there was less grass and water available. A fifty thousand acre ranch might only be able to hold a thousand head of cattle. In dry country, even less, and there would be no hay produced.
Old Bill had recognized all of that when he staked his claim here. Murphy had worked at building the ranch and the herd. If he had finished fencing it, he would have controlled the best grass and water for miles around. He could have better managed his breeding program and protected and fed his stock in harsh weather. He couldn’t do any of that with his cattle scattered and mixed in with other cattle all over the range.
The sun was getting low in the sky and the air had begun to cool as I approached the ranch buildings. I’d ridden along the edge of the creek and came up to a little hill that afforded a view of the house and barn.
This was where I found the graves.
Sean Murphy and his wife Angela Murphy were laid to rest side by side, the graves covered with stones brought up from the creek. Someone had taken the time to burn the names into boards that formed simple wooden headstones.
I waited up on the little cemetery hill, watching the buildings for a while to be sure there was no one waiting to surprise me as I rode in. There was no sign of life. I’d been hoping Bill and his big, spotted Appaloosa horse would be there.
Shortly, Dusty and I went down the hill and up into the ranch yard. It was dusk now, the time of long shadows. I left him ground tied as I went into the barn to check it out. Inside there were four standing stalls on one side and three box stalls at the back. At the front was a big open area that would hold a couple of large wagons or other equipment, but there was nothing here now. There was no harness for the horses that were no longer here. There was no blacksmith equipment either, not even an anvil. The barn had been stripped of every piece of useful gear that could be hauled off.
I climbed the ladder into the loft and was surprised to find it filled with hay! Back on the ground, I led Dusty into a corral at the side of the barn where there was a trough of water, now growing greenish with algae. Just outside the pen was a hand pump and spigot set to pump water into the end of the trough where it stuck through the fence. No bucket though. I’d thought to buy one of those, and I hoped to find it with the other supplies in the house.
I unsaddled Dusty and turned him loose in the corral. The water would be good enough to get him through one night. Tomorrow, I’d drain and clean the troughs, but I’d need the bucket if I wanted to refill the troughs in the other corrals. I wished I had a good cotton hose, one of those rubberized ones. You could buy them at the hardware store in Bear Creek, but they weren’t available at the general store in Buttercup.
Leaving my saddle and bridle in the barn on the side of one of the standing stalls, I climbed into the loft and kicked some hay down to Dusty.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, I took my rifle and bedroll and headed for the house.
I stopped on the porch, listening to the stillness of the evening. Somewhere, a coyote howled.
Once inside, I fumbled around in the dark until I got a lamp lit. Eventually I had a fire going in the cook stove and made myself some supper. After I cleaned up my cooking mess, I went out and sat on a bench on the porch, relaxing to the sound of the creek and the other peaceful sounds of the evening. Back inside, I put my handguns under a pillow on one of the beds, took off my boots, turned out the lamps and rolled up in my bedroll. As I started to fall asleep, I heard a lone owl hooting in the night. The Indians say if you hear an owl call your name, it’s a portent of your death. I guess he didn’t call my name, because I fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.
I woke up a little disoriented, thinking for a moment I was in my bed at home, and I reached out for Lora, before I remembered where I was.
The sun was just coming up in the east. I pulled on my boots and fired up the cook stove. I used the hand pump mounted above the sink and splashed cold water in my face and got the coffee started. Then, after checking and holstering my guns, I went out to check on Dusty. He seemed pleased to see me and appeared to be quite comfortable in his present environment. There was a bit if a chill to the early morning air, reminding me fall was pretty much on us and the first snowfall was only a few weeks away.
After breakfast, I started taking an inventory of the things that would be needed to get through the winter. I wouldn’t be here at the ranch then, but hopefully by then we would have restored the ranching operations and someone would be living here. I figured the first order of business would be the fall roundup and I needed to find out when and where that would be.
I’d have to hire some cowboys to help with the roundup, gather the Murphy cattle after the sorting and then drive them here to the ranch. The fence needed to be finished, so the Murphy herd would no longer drift all over the range.
I was reminded I had no idea how many cattle Murphy had. That was the dilemma. What had happened to the equipment and other property stolen from the Murphy ranch? Would I have to sell the cattle to pay for equipment and a fence, which wouldn’t be needed to hold the cattle I’d sold to pay for it?
It was time to do some investigating.
“Cowboys, Sheriff Sage? If there’s one thing we used to have plenty of around here it was men and boys who know how to work cattle. What do you need cowboys for?” Mr. Burke asked.
“Do you know if or when they’re planning the fall roundup?”
“Course, I’ve sold supplies to the cooks stocking the chuck wagons. Always try to beat the snow. Roundup starts in two days. That’s Friday, day after tomorrow.”
“Who all will be involved? I mean how many ranches?”
Mr. Burke scratched his chin. He was thoughtful for a moment.
“I don’t rightly know. Time was there would’ve been several, now though, not so many.”
“Why is that?”
Mr. Burke turned away, trying to busy himself with something.
“I asked you why there won’t be as many ranches represented at the roundup.”
“You tell him, Papa, by golly!” Mrs. Burke said, shaking her finger at her husband.
“Alright, Mama, I’ll tell him.”
Mr. Burke looked at me with sad eyes.
“The reason there’s less ranches now is because of Jud Coltrane. I expect he’s bought out, burned out, or run off most of the other ranchers. He pretty much controls the whole range now. I guess there won’t be more than three or four outfits at the roundup. It’ll be the Bar C Bar and maybe two or three others he hasn’t been able to buy, borrow or steal.”
“Where is the headquarters for the Bar C Bar?” I asked.
Mr. and Mrs. Burke looked at each other.
“…Coltrane’s place is about three miles east of here, right close to the railroad tracks. Jud Coltrane was some put out when the railroad wouldn’t let him cut their fences to put in gates. He owns land on both sides of the tracks, but most all of it is on the east side. His headquarters is up on a hill on this side of the tracks, but he only has a couple of hundred acres over here. The two parts of his land are only connected at the point where Buttercup Creek runs under the tracks. That’s the only place he can move his cattle from one side to the other. He has to go under the railroad trestle, because of the barbed wire. Like I said, the railroad owns the fences and they wouldn’t put in gates for him.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, the Bar C Bar land is four or five sections, close to three thousand acres, but he overgrazed it real bad the first year he owned it. He put over a thousand head on it, because he figured he had enough water. He paid a premium for those cattle too. He had water, but the grass wasn’t enough for so many head. The other ranchers wouldn’t let him run his cattle in with theirs on the rangeland this side of the tracks. There was trouble over it.
Before he bought his land and shipped in all those cattle, there was probably less than a thousand head altogether, on the whole range. Over here, closer to the mountains there’s more rainfall and better grass. On the other side of the tracks it’s drier country, it’ll hold only a couple of hundred head or so. Coltrane tried to take over the whole range for miles around. He would have ruined everything and put some of those small outfits out of business.
Sean Murphy wasn’t about to let Coltrane take over everything. He it was as organized the other ranches. The ranchers with the better grass and a better understanding of land management banded together to make Coltrane graze his cattle on the east side of the tracks. They pushed Coltrane’s cattle to the other side of the tracks and barricaded the opening under the railroad trestle. Then they held it by force of arms.
Coltrane’s hands wouldn’t fight for him. He threatened to bring in gun hands from Texas. When the railroad got wind of the trouble; they wouldn’t even talk to Coltrane about gates. They didn’t want any part of the trouble.”
“Then what happened?”
“Coltrane was forced to sell off most of his herd, but by then the range on the other side of the tracks was near ruined. Once he got his herd down to a manageable size, the other ranchers let him run his cattle in with theirs on the range over here, but Jud Coltrane isn’t a forgiving man. He’s spent the last couple of years trying to destroy everybody who was against him. He’s pretty much done it too.
Murphy was the thorn in his side. Once Coltrane started overtaking the smaller ranches, Murphy started fencing his own place. Sean figured to pull his cattle in, and run his operation on his own land. With him owning the land on both sides of Buttercup Creek, once his place was fenced off, Murphy would’ve had control of the meadows in the high country as well.”
“But Coltrane wasn’t willing to let him?”
“If Murphy had done it, he would’ve controlled most of the access to Buttercup Creek on this side of the tracks, and the approaches to the mountain meadows.”
“Is that what got him killed?”
“Jud Coltrane claimed Sean Murphy stole some of the Bar C Bar cattle and was branding the calves with the Rocking M.”
“I don’t know. How could anybody know? Sean never got to finish his fence. There was sure enough Bar C Bar cattle on his land, just as there are Rocking M cattle on Coltrane’s land. All the cattle are running together on the range right now. It’s the whole reason for the roundups.” Burke concluded.
“Do you know how many head the Rocking M has?”
“No sir. That’s not something Sean Murphy ever had occasioned to mention.”
“Can you tell me who the other ranchers are with cattle on this range?”
“I can tell you who should be represented. Well, let’s see. There’s the Corkscrew outfit, and the Box Cross. They’re south and west of here. Murphy’s Rocking M, the Bar C Bar and the Flying W. That last outfit is just to the northeast. I expect those are all that’s left now, and I ain’t real sure about any of it.”
“What other outfits that used to be here, are gone now?”
“Mostly the little ones, Tom Slater’s Lazy S, Ace Johnson’s Rafter J, the Circle B, and us. We ran cattle here, too.”
“What happened to your cattle?”
Mr. and Mrs. Burke looked at each other again.
“We sold out. We couldn’t be in the fight. We have a good business here and we can’t afford to take sides.”
“What about the others?”
“The uhh, Lazy S, and the other little outfits.”
They looked at each other again.
“Well, the Rafter J cattle all disappeared last winter, between one roundup and the next. The barn at the Lazy S caught fire one night, and the Slater’s pulled out the next day. The Barnett’s who had the Circle B sold out right after one of their riders was shot.”
“Let me guess, they all sold out to Jud Coltrane, for pennies on the dollar.”
“No, the Slater’s didn’t sell out. They just pulled out. The Slater’s still own the place, wherever they are. …The rest of em? Yep, pretty much like you just said.”
“Where can I find some cowboys who’ll work for day wages and help me organize the Rocking M herd?
“Try the Johnson’s, by golly! They hate that Jud Coltrane, you betcha.”
“They didn’t sell out?”
“No. When their herd disappeared, they became hay farmers, or at least they’re trying to be. Johnson was the first to fence off his land. When the Johnsons got put out of the cattle business, Coltrane didn’t know Johnson and Murphy had already ordered a ton of wire and posts. The Rafter J went right to work fencing their place and had it mostly done before Coltrane even noticed. Johnson and Murphy were going into the hay farming business together. Johnson has equipment Murphy helped him buy. They would’ve fenced off both of their places and blocked that whole end of the range. Coltrane’s hired thugs keep pulling down parts of Johnson’s fence, so the range cattle can graze on their place too.”
“Where is the Johnson place?”
“It’s right between the Rocking M and the Box Cross. I’ll draw you a map.”
“Thanks. I need to send a telegram. I don’t suppose you know of anyone who’ll be going up to Bear Creek any time soon.”
“I’ll be taking my wagon up there tomorrow. I need to re-stock some of my goods. If that’s soon enough, I’ll go to the telegraph office for you.”
“Yep, I sure would appreciate it.”
“Help yourself to pen and paper. You write out what you want and where it’s to be sent. I reckon half a dollar ought to cover my time and expense.”
“Thank you, Mr. Burke. I’ll write the telegram, while you draw me a map of the area. I plan to visit as many of the other ranches as I can, before the roundup starts. I’ll start with the Rafter J.”