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Powder River Country
THE MOVIES, THE WARS, AND THE TEAPOT DOME A journey of a hundred miles on a Wyoming interstate turns up the true stories behind the powerful Western myths
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
About noon of the day that Champion was killed, Jack Flagg, who was also on the Regulators’ dead-list, passed by in his wagon, headed for Buffalo. He was fired upon but escaped, and so the news of the Invasion reached the “rustler” capital. Sheriff Red Angus began swearing in deputies, and Robert Foote, Buffalo’s leading merchant, galloped from ranch to ranch on his black horse, black cape and white beard flying, alerting the citizenry. He opened his store to supply arms, ammunition, and tobacco to the settlers converging on the county seat. A Home Defenders Corps was organized, and churches and schools turned into sanctuaries for women and children. The sheriff’s posse rode south to do battle, and soon the Regulators were surrounded at the TA Ranch, fourteen miles south of Buffalo.
Already there had been desertions from the ranks of the Regulators; one man with painful piles and a cattleman and Dr. Penrose with what the Texans called “gunnarrhea.” Relations between the mercenaries and their employers were increasingly strained. In their haste to get behind makeshift fortifications at the ranch, they had lost their supply wagons to the settlers’ army, which now numbered four hundred. Somehow a message of distress was sent to Gov. Amos Barber, a friend to the cattlemen, whose ambiguous telegram to the President of the United States began, “An insurrection exists in Johnson County ... in the immediate vicinity of Fort McKinney, against the government. . . .”
In custody, the Regulators were protected by the legal system.
The siege of the TA Ranch began on Monday, April 11, 1892. Tuesday was a long day for the Regulators, ducking bullets behind their barricades. Sorties were planned and abandoned. Everyone quarreled. It could be seen that the settlers’ army was building the “Ark of Safety,” a breastworks mounted on the running gear of a wagon. This was to be maneuvered close to the fortifications so that dynamite bombs could be lobbed inside.
In the fantastical Heaven’s Gate the Regulators, vaguely fascist in their uniform horsemen’s dusters, are dismounted in a meadow while European immigrants in careening wagons, officered by good American gun toters, circle the coolly firing enemy, like some weird reversal of Indians attacking a wagon train.
In actuality, when Wednesday dawned, it was the settlers’ “Ark of Safety” that lurched forward into a hail of lead. Just then a bugle sounded, and in as corny a deus ex machina as could be imagined, Colonel Van Horn and three troops of the 6th Cavalry from Fort McKinney appeared upon the scene. The Invaders were more than happy to surrender to the U.S. Army.
Fictional versions of the final events of the Invasion have homesteaders and hired killers dying in storms of rifle fire. In fact, the only casualties were the Texan Jim Dudley, who contrived to shoot himself in a fall from his horse, and his fellow Alex Lowther, also a victim of a six-gun accident. With Nick Ray and Nate Champion dead at the KC, the final score stood at 2 to 2.
In custody in Cheyenne the Regulators were among friends, with a properly functioning legal system. Reasons were found for excusing a number of the well-connected from trial, and with delay after delay, Johnson County faced bankruptcy paying the expenses of the prisoners. Finally the Regulators’ lawyer appealed for a dismissal of charges, and everybody went home. The war continued as a series of murders, and Tom Horn, a frontier hero turned mercenary-assassin (played by Steve McQueen in the film Tom Horn), began his dry-gulching operations, for which he was hanged in 1903.
The TA Ranch’s weathered, patient log structures cluster beneath spreading shade trees. It is rather melancholy here and situated, like Nate Champion’s last stand, between the interstate and the old road. This, State 196, becomes Buffalo’s main street, a one-time cow trail curving between hills, with false-fronted buildings of wood, stone, and warm old brick springing up to bracket it. The saloon at which we thirstily stop is closed because today is Sunday. Farther along, the town’s one traffic light is under repair.
The Bozeman Trail crossed Clear Creek at Buffalo, and to the north the Great Plains collide dramatically with the Rockies—sunny meadows sweeping up against the dark verticals of the Bighorns. The country from Buffalo to Fort Phil Kearny, seventeen miles farther along, was the scene of a hundred Indian fights in Red Cloud’s War against the incursion of settlers on the Bozeman Trail, including the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. Not far from here Gen. George Crook had his nose bloodied twice by the Sioux and their allies, first on the Powder River in March of 1876 and again on the Rosebud in June. From this last victory Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Gall drifted north to the Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand, which was also the Last Stand of the Plains Indians.
The hundred miles from Caspar to Buffalo, and another hundred north to the Custer Monument, cover a powerful span of Western history. When we returned to San Francisco after our trip, a mechanic looked disapprovingly under the hood of the Subaru and suggested a steam cleaning to get rid of the caked dust. But I would not disturb it, for that fine red dust is the stuff not merely of history but of legend.