After Custer's Seventh Cavalry was all but wiped out on a barren knoll east of the Little Big Horn River in 1876, a new era dawned in Wyoming. The U. S. Army, determined to avenge their tarnished image, set out to subjugate or annihilate every Plains Indian tribe in the West. It would only require about ten years for their campaign to be accomplished. All of Wyoming's high plain east of the Bighorn Mountains, once controlled by Brulé and Oglala Sioux, was to become an open-range pasture for great herds of cattle. In 1879, Moreton Frewen, an emigrant from England, bought out the 76 brand from Sweetwater rancher, Tim Foley, and drove his huge herd to the Powder River Basin east of the Bighorns. This event was soon followed with thousands of beef cattle being turned loose by quickly organized cattle companies. Nonresident foreigners owned controlling interests in many of them. Within a few years, migrants began to arrive intent upon staking homestead claims along streams where they would farm and raise a few cattle. The open-range cattle companies hired hundreds of cowboys, many of them from Texas, to manage their herds. This was a mix that was destined to generate major conflicts. Farms and small ranches had to be fenced with barbed wire to protect their grass from foraging herds owned by open-range cattlemen. In turn, the open-range herds became targets of rustlers -- a number of them being cowboys that wanted to build their own herds. Many a calf or yearling, which was unbranded or had its brand altered, wound up in their pastures. And some of the homesteaders helped themselves to this wandering source of stock to build their own herds. Thus, open-range cattle barons, homesteaders and rustlers were set upon a collision course that would result in a conflict known as the Johnson County Cattle War of 1892. The culminating battle was fought at the TA ranch compound located in a bend of Crazy Woman Creek.
INCIDENT AT CRAZY WOMAN CREEK is a story based on events leading up to and following the battle at the TA Ranch.
Nate Hamby needed a shave, a bath, and a change of luck. He knuckled his bristled chin and pondered yet another episode of bad luck as he squatted beside his firepit on the banks of the Powder River. While mulling over the last few days of misfortune, he stared at smoldering embers coaxing bubbles from a can of pork and beans and listened to bitter brew gurgling within the blackened belly of his coffee pot. He was losing his fight to bring justice to Wyoming. Nate shivered, buttoned his sheepskin parka, and snugged its fleecy collar high about his neck and chin. An evening wind had suddenly turned cold as it rushed across Wyoming's high plains from the eastern slopes of the Bighorn Mountains.
This land, once the home of buffalo, pronghorn antelope, deer, Chiefs Red Cloud and Dull Knife, was changing. The buffalo and chiefs had disappeared during the previous decade. By now, in 1891, antelope and deer were vying with longhorns and Herefords to graze the Powder Basin's bluestem grass. Ranchers and homesteaders were turning this virgin country, once the hunting grounds claimed by Red Cloud's Sioux and Dull Knife's Cheyenne, into cattle spreads and farms.
Splashing hooves fording the Powder alerted Nate to the three riders approaching his camp. Two were boys, maybe sixteen or eighteen at the most. The third was considerably older. Nate poured coffee into his tin cup and sipped while squatting next to the fire.
"Howdy, pard," the older rider said. "We smelled your java clean down t'the river -- mind if we share a cup?"
The three slipped off their horses and pulled tin cups out of their saddlebags. "I'm Jess Bass," the older man said, "and these is my boys. Chip's the towhead and Hank's the skinny one."
Nate eyed the trio and decided not to reveal he was a federal marshal. "Howdy, I'm Nate Hamby. The coffee's ready."
"Thanks, fill my cup, Chip."
Bass squatted beside the fire. "I see y'only got one can o' them beans."
"Nope, I've got more."
"That right?" Bass said, sipped coffee and stared at the bubbling beans.
Nate got up and pulled two cans out of his saddlebags. "That's all I have. You're welcome to them."
Bass tossed both cans to Hank. "Open 'em up and put 'em on t'cook. Where y'from, Hamby?"
"The Wagon Box."
"That's up near Sheridan?"
"I've heard o' your spread. Say, we're lookin' t'work. Might you be needin' three good hands?"
Nate did not miss the running irons lashed to each of their bedrolls. Rustlers and maybe highwaymen to boot, he thought, glancing at the old .45s with well-worn walnut grips slung low on their hips. "Nope, I've got all the hands I need," he said, massaging the chill from his crooked right arm.
Bass glanced at Nate's withered right hand. "Well, mighty sorry t'hear that."
The towhead cocked his head toward Nate's horse and winked at Jess Bass.
Nate struggled to pull a leather glove onto his left hand and then reached for his can of cooked beans.
Jess Bass nodded at the towhead, pulled a pair of wire-cutting pliers from his hip pocket and offered them to Nate. "Take my pliers. A glove won't keep you from gettin' burned."
Nate picked up the can with the pliers and set it on a flat rock. Wire-cutting pliers in the pocket of a man who was wandering over the high plains of Wyoming wasn't hard to figure. Plenty of grazing land was enclosed by barbed wire as more and more owners of small ranches fenced their land. Some of the finest cattle in the state grazed those pastures and wire-cutting tools could open a fence quicker than a bronco could buck off a pesky rider. Roping and branding mavericks was one thing, but cutting fences to rustle cattle whose ownership was unquestioned was thievery most Wyoming folks felt to be worthy of the rope.
Nate handed the pliers back to Bass. "Thanks -- where you fellas from?"
"Buffalo," Bass said as he chewed beans.
Nate knew everybody in Buffalo, most on a first-name basis. This character is lyin' through his beans, he thought. "How long you lived there?"
"Aw, maybe two months. Say, you sure got a good lookin' sorrel."
Nate was growing more wary of his uninvited guests. The two shifty-eyed boys grubbing beans from a single can continued to size up his campsite.
Bass tossed his empty can into the fire. "We'd best be ridin'. Thanks for the coffee and beans."
Nate nodded, watched the three drifters mount their horses and wondered when he would meet them again. As the trio rode southeast, they were quickly swallowed by the dim twilight of evening.
He bedded down near the dying fire. The saddle blanket covering him and the saddle beneath his head smelled of stale horse sweat. His Colt .45 lay next to the saddle within an easy grasp of his left hand. He listened to yelping coyotes and watched a glittering display of meteors slashing fiery trails across the heavens. The sorrel, champing on a hat full of oats, added cadence to nature's nocturnal melody. The lullaby was too much. His eyes slowly closed.
The trenches east of Richmond and Petersburg crept from the recesses of his memory. Four years of victories and defeats had leeched the spirit from his beloved Virginia. Out of the darkness, shadows trudged toward the James River Bridge, the last defenders of a defeated Confederacy retreating toward Appomattox. The retreat became a rout. A rider-less horse reared when Nate leaped into its empty saddle. The beast bucked, again and again, in a frenzy of flying hooves, hurling him high into the air. He crashed against a boulder crushing his right shoulder and arm. "Damn, that hurts," he muttered, half awake, half asleep.
Nate's eyes opened as he rubbed the ache from his crippled right arm. The setting moon was balanced on the high peaks of the Bighorns. He knew the time was between those hours of darkness and dawn when all of nature, except the human species, settles into silence. His sorrel was stomping restlessly. Man's God-given instincts began to awaken him to the invisible danger crawling through the sage. The sorrel lurched as a strange hand reached for its hackamore. Nate rolled free of his bedding into a low crouch. His left hand, grasping the .45, leaped toward the shadowy figure as it threw itself across the sorrel. In an instant, the Colt recoiled, slamming itself against the palm of Nate's hand.