Powder River Country

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Johnson County’s 1890s population consisted not of the European immigrants who people the film Heaven’s Gate but of homesteaders, squatters, small ranchers, and townsfolk who were the usual restless or busted Americans moving west from frontier to frontier. Certainly some of the small ranchers rustled stock on the side, just as rustlers ranched on the side. “The longest rope gets the maverick” was a cow-country expression, the maverick being unbranded range cattle. Settlers butchered cattle that wandered onto their homesteads or brought home steers as they might antelope. Worse, they strung barbed wire to keep out the cattle that trampled their crops. Cowboys knocked down the wire, which could make a mess of the steer or horse that blundered into it. At the same time, small ranchers were not allowed to participate in the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association roundups, and the brands of newcomers were routinely rejected for the association’s brand book.

Frank Canton, one of the leaders of the Invasion, might have been a model for Wister’s Virginian, for he was born in that state. He was employed by the association as a stock detective. These men were the stock growers’ security force, which gathered evidence of cattle thievery and turned it over to the local sheriffs for prosecution. But the system was failing; detectives like Canton were no longer able to get convictions in Johnson County. The county seat, Buffalo, became known as the rustler capital.

 
 

That spring, when word reached them that the small ranchers had scheduled their own roundup in brazen competition with the association’s official one, the junta of wealthy cattle barons headquartered in Cheyenne was filled with indignation. Now, it seemed to them, rustling was to be legitimized.

The Invasion was planned by the association in the Cheyenne Club. There would be a lightning march on Buffalo. The town was to be seized, and known rustlers rounded up. A “dead-list” of thirty men was compiled. The Invasion force consisted of twenty-one association members, six “civilians"—three teamsters, two newspaper correspondents, and a surgeon (Dr. Penrose, of Philadelphia, who went along for the adventure)—and twenty-two mercenary gunmen, recruited mainly from Texas. Maj. Frank Wolcott, who had served in the Union army, commanded the expedition.

North from Caspar the landscape subtly changes. The buttes become more rounded, and herds of cattle graze on a carpet of grass, usually a few white-bottomed antelope alongside them. From the Johnson County line the Bighorns are visible. Rumbling over a cattle guard, my wife and I veer off the interstate onto State 259 and cross the Powder River, which runs between banks stained with the white powder of its salinity. Downstream it is famous for being “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” The horses of the Regulators must have trodden through oil seepage in these bottoms, for this is salt-dome terrain, which petroleum prospectors learned early to search for.

Above a clean white cluster of ranch buildings rises Teapot Rock on its hillock. Having lost its spout in a storm some years ago, it now resembles an Easter Island head more than a teapot. North of Teapot Rock is Teapot Creek, and up Teapot Creek is Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3, better known as Teapot Dome. In 1922 Albert B. Fall, Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, was convicted for illegally selling rights to this field to Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company. The reputation of the Harding administration was ruined in the scandal.

Sparse pumps dot the hillside of Naval Reserve No. 3, but just beyond it, in a rich stench of oil, the great Salt Creek Field is alive with pumps like iron praying mantises sucking the fine green oil from underground cavities. Beyond Salt Creek the interstate winds through sullen malpais, with tiny trucks approaching on slants of highway out of vast distances. Among bony hills we come upon the hamlet of Kaycee, named for the old KC ranch that once encompassed these parts. At a line camp just south of the present town the Invaders encountered the first name on their dead-list.

 
 
 
Hole-in-the-Wall was a stop on the outlaw trail from Canada to Mexico.

He was Nate Champion, and he was to become a Western legend because of the stand he made that day, which saved the necks of many of his neighbors, and because of the moving record of the fight he kept in his diary. The Regulators surrounded the cabin where Champion and a companion, Nick Ray, were sleeping. Ray was shot when he stepped outside at dawn to relieve himself. Champion dragged the dying man inside, and the siege began. It continued all day, with the Invaders infuriatingly delayed in their strike at Buffalo and Champion desperately hoping to make his break when night came. His diary entry reads:

“Shooting again. I think they will fire the house this time.”

“It is not night yet. The house is all fired. Good-bye boys, if I never see you again.”