The Johnson Country War

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The boom crashed into ruin in the awful winter of 1886-87. Snow fell and drifted and thawed and froze and fell again, clothing the ground with an iron sheath of white on which a stagecoach could travel and through which no bovine hoof could paw for grass; and since the plains were heavily overstocked and the previous summer had been hot and dry, there was no grass anyway. Moaning cattle wandered into the outskirts of towns, trying to eat frozen garbage and the tar paper oft the eaves of the shacks; and when the hot sun of early summer uncovered the fetid carcasses piled in the creek bottoms, the bark of trees and brush was gnawed as high as a cow could reach. Herd losses averaged fifty per cent, with ninety per cent for unacclimated southern herds, and some moral revulsion set in, even the Cheyenne Daily Sun remarking that a man who turned animals out on a barren plain without food or shelter would suffer loss of respect of the community in which he lived.

Meanwhile there were gloomy faces at the Cheyenne Club. “Cheer up, boys,” quipped the bartender across the street, setting out a row of glasses, “the books won’t freeze.”

In the heyday of the beef bonanza, herds had been bought and sold by “book count,” based on a backof-an-envelope calculation of “natural increase,” with no pother about a tally on the range. As the day of reckoning dawned, it turned out that many big companies had fewer than half the number of cattle claimed on their books. Now the terrible winter cut this half down to small fractions; faraway directors, grown glacial as the weather, hinted that blizzards were the fault of their underlings in Cheyenne; while the few surviving cows, instead of giving birth to sextuplets as was their clear duty, produced a correspondingly diminished calf crop to fatten on the gorgeous grass that sprang up after the snows.

In their bitterness, the cattlemen believed that the damned thieves were to blame. Obsessed with this idea, they now proceeded to bring upon themselves an epidemic of stealing without parallel in the West. At least that was what they called it, though to a cool-headed observer from Nebraska it looked more like “the bitter conflict which has raged incessantly between large and small owners.”

In fact it was even more. For Wyoming in the nineties shared the outlook of that decade everywhere else; a decade of economic and moral monopoly, when righteousness belonged exclusively to the upper class, along with the means of production; a decade when the best people simply could not be wrong. The best people in this case were the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and their several rich and prominent eastern friends, and the climate of opinion they breathed was startlingly revealed in the hanging of Jim Averill and Cattle Kate. When the cattlemen shed crocodile tears because thieves went unwhipped, they forgot that thieves were not the worst to go free. At least six persons were shot or hanged in the years before the final flare-up, but not one person was ever brought to trial for the crimes—not even in the case of Jim Averill and the woman whose real name was Ella, who were hanged on the Sweetwater in 1889.

Averill and Ella ran a log-cabin saloon and road ranch up a desolate little valley off the Sweetwater, and they were nuisances. The man was articulate and a Populist of sorts, and had attacked the big cattlemen in a letter to the local press; the woman was a cowboys’ prostitute who took her pay in stolen cattle. From this, aristocratic Dr. Penrose could argue later that “she had to die for the good of the country.”

Die she did, with her paramour, at the end of a rope thrown over a tree limb and swung out over a gulch. There were three eyewitnesses to the abduction and one to the actual hanging, and a coroner’s jury named four prominent cattlemen among the perpetrators. But before the case reached the grand jury three of the witnesses had vanished and the fourth had conveniently died. Afterward two of the men w’hose hands were filthy from this affair continued to rub elbows with the fastidious Teschemaker on the executive committee of the Stock Growers Association, and nauseating jokes about the last moments of Kate were applauded at the Cheyenne Club. Even Owen Wister joined in the applause, noting in his diary for October 12, 1889: “Sat yesterday in smoking car with one of the gentlemen indicted [sic] for lynching the man and the woman. He seemed a good solid citizen and I hope he’ll get off.”

The association tightened its blacklist. In a cattle economy where cows were the only means of getting ahead, the cowboys had long been forbidden to own a brand or a head of stock on their own, lest they be tempted to brand a maverick. Now more and more of them were “blackballed” on suspicion from all lawful employment within the territory. Likewise the association made the rules of the range, ran the roundups to suit itself, and kept out the increasing number of people it didn’t like; hence many small stockmen, suspect of misbehavior by their very smallness, were also relegated to a shady no man’s land outside the law.

If you call a man a thief, treat him like a thief, and deprive him of all chance to earn a living honestly, he will soon oblige you by becoming a thief.