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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Murder Maverick

by C. F. Eckhardt
If you’ve ridden many miles on the sunset side of the Colorado and listened to people talk in bars and cafes, you’ve heard a good many tales. Once you get west of the Pecos, there’s one in particular you’ll hear. You’ll hear the tale of a phantom steer called ‘the Murder Maverick.’

Supposedly the Murder Maverick is an omen of death. It is a big steer, sometimes red, sometimes black, sometimes another color. It is branded on one side with the word MURDER ‘in letters a foot high.’ If a man or woman gets close enough to read the brand, either that person or someone close to him or her will soon be murdered.
The first time I found the tale it was, believe it or not, in the back pages of a Gene Autry comic book in the 1940s. Dell magazines, which at the time published most of the better comic books in the country, had an agreement with J. Frank Dobie’s publisher to excerpt and tell, in comic-strip-panel format, some of the stories from his books. The legend of the Murder Maverick appeared in Dobie’s book THE LONGHORNS. In the Gene Autry comic book—and in THE LONGHORNS—the steer was red.
I later heard the story around a campfire. This time the steer was black, and the word showed up ‘like chalk on a blackboard.’ According to the seller, two ranchers, at a roundup, disputed the ownership of the steer. The dispute became a difficulty and one of the men was shot and killed. The other escaped. Cowboys who worked for the dead man roped and tied down the steer, then branded it with the word MURDER. According to the teller of the tale, the brand didn’t truly scar the hide, but killed the color-producing cells in the hair follicles, so that when the hair grew back it grew in white. The Murder Maverick then began following the murderer everywhere he went, until he had to leave the country entirely. It then went off into the mountains in the trans-Pecos area. It only appeared occasionally, but when it did and the brand was read, someone would be murdered shortly afterward.

In the early ‘60s the story turned up in a black-and-white ‘horror’ comic. It was later part of an episode on the Rawhide television program.

Was there ever really a Murder Maverick? The answer, strangely enough, is yes. In January of 1896, in Brewster County, just out of Alpine, there was a ‘cow gather,’ which is what cattlemen called what’s today called a ‘roundup’ before the movies came along. At the time Brewster County—indeed, most of trans-Pecos Texas and much of the panhandle—was still open range. One of the ranchers at the gather was a one-armed Confederate veteran named Henry H. Powe—pronounced ‘Poe,’ not ‘Pow.’ He had his son Robert with him. Another person present was Emanuel ‘Manny’ Clements, cousin to John Wesley Hardin. Still a third was a man named Finus ‘Fine’ Gilliland. Gilliland was a ‘rep’—an agent for absentee ranch owners, to look after their interests at the gather. He was also, apparently, a man of some reputation as a gunman. He was not, of course, in a league with people like Manny Clements or Wes Hardin, but he did have a known reputation.

A yearling bullcalf, brindle in color, came up in the gather. It was not following a cow. According to several men in the party, they had seen the animal on the range during the year, and when they saw it, it was following a cow branded HHP. HHP was Henry Powe’s brand, so he cut out the bullcalf and drove it to his gather, which his son Bob was holding. Gilliland noticed the bullcalf in the Powe gather and demanded the young man produce an HHP cow to go with it. There wasn’t one, but young Bob Powe told him that several men mentioned seeing the yearling following an HHP cow earlier. Gilliland then stated that unless the Powes could produce an HHP cow to go with the yearling, it wasn’t HHP stock. He ordered Bob Powe to cut it out of the HHP gather. He then drove the calf back into the main gather.

As he did so, Henry Powe rode up to him and words passed between the men, but no one was close enough to hear what they were. Henry Powe then went to a rancher named Kelly, on whose land the gather was being held, talked to him for a moment, and then rode to Manny Clements. He spoke to Manny a moment, then reached in Manny’s saddle pocket.

Henry Powe did not customarily carry a pistol, and as a one-armed man he had trouble shooting long guns. Manny Clements, however, carried revolvers in his saddle pockets, it being against local regulations to carry pistols openly. Powe took a pistol from Manny’s saddle pocket and stuck it in his waistband. He then turned back to the gather and began to cut out the brindle bullcalf.

At that point Gilliland rode into the gather and threw a rope at the bullcalf, whether to catch it or to head it off no one knows. Henry Powe then pulled the pistol out of his waistband and fired—shooting not at Gilliland, but at the bullcalf. He missed.

Gilliland dismounted, dropped to one knee, aimed carefully—and missed Henry Powe clean. Powe then dismounted, wrapped his reins around his only arm—the one that held the pistol—and fired at Gilliland. He not only missed, his horse shied wildly, jerking him to the ground. He got up, recocked the revolver, and missed Gilliland again. Gilliland returned fire for a second miss. At that point Powe’s pistol’s hammer either fell on a dud cartridge or a primer backed out, jamming the weapon. While Powe tried to deal with the situation, Gilliland ran up to him, pushed Powe’s only arm aside, placed the muzzle of his weapon to the Confederate veteran’s chest, and fired, killing Henry Powe instantly. He then jumped on his horse and rode away.

According to Robert Powe, he heard about the men branding the bullcalf with the word MURDER and the date of the murder, but did not see the act. Immediately the law went after Gilliland. About a week later Brewster County Deputy Sheriff Thalis Cook and Texas Ranger Jim Putman came up on a stranger in an unnamed canyon in the Big Bend country. Cook demanded to know if the man was Fine Gilliland. He was—he replied with gunfire, killing Cook’s horse and wounding the deputy in the knee. Cook returned fire, killing Gilliland’s horse. Gilliland took cover behind the fallen animal and continued to shoot.

Jim Putman calmly dismounted, pulled out his Winchester, knelt on the icy ground, and rested the carbine across a boulder. He waited. Soon Gilliland, apparently getting curious about the lack of gunfire from the lawmen, poked his head over the horse’s back. That was exactly what Jim was waiting for. Gilliland Canyon is named for him, because that’s where Jim shot him—square between his eyes.

Henry Powe was buried from the Methodist Church in Alpine—a church he helped establish. Gilliland’s remains were collected by relatives and he’s buried in Snyder. And there the story might have remained—had it not been for Wigfall Van Sickle.

Wigfall Van Sickle, named for US Senator and later Confederate Colonel Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, was a storyteller. He liked a good story. He also didn’t mind making a story better than it was to begin with.

Van Sickle was a lawyer in Alpine and later Brewster County Judge. According to him, he—then merely a lawyer—and the then District Judge were riding from Alpine to Fort Stockton for a trial when they spotted a big red maverick bull. The Judge and the lawyer headed and heeled the creature, which fell on its left side. They built a fire and started heating a spur to brand it, when the Judge mentioned that cattle were normally branded on the left flank. They rolled the animal over and “Behold! The animal was branded with the word MURDER in letters a foot high,” to quote Van Sickle.

Unless you’ve chased a few cattle yourself, there are a couple of minor points that just don’t jibe here. First, anybody who heads or heels a full-grown bull and doesn’t see a brand in letters ‘a foot high’ on its left side either needs glasses awful bad or didn’t rope the animal he said he roped. Second, the bullcalf over which two men died was brindle, and brindle animals don’t turn red no matter what you brand them with.

Van Sickle was also the apparent author of the tale about the Murder Maverick and the Alpine saloon. Supposedly, during a discussion of Henry Powe’s murder, the Murder Maverick itself stuck its head in a window and let loose with a ‘blood-clabberin’ bawl.’ He apparently added other embellishments, including the story about seeing the animal being an omen of death.

The legend of the Murder Maverick—the Wigfall Van Sickle version, anyway—first appeared in a Galveston newspaper about 1916. Barry Scobee, the ‘Bard of the Big Bend,’ published it in the ‘20s. Dobie used it in an outdoor magazine in the ‘30s, then put it in THE LONGHORNS.

So what happened to the actual ‘murder maverick?’ According to Bob Powe, it stayed on the ranch until 1905. At that point a local cattleman named Bob Allen was making up a herd to drive to the Indian reservations in Montana. Powe put the animal in Allen’s herd, then followed the herd until he saw the animal over which his father had been murdered cross the Pecos. We can safely assume that, some four or five months later the ‘murder maverick’—the flesh-and-blood animal—was converted to jerky, hoof and horn glue, and a tipi door.

But the Murder Maverick? It’s become part of the legend that is Texas. Let’s hope it—and the rest of that legend—never dies.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" April 15, 2009 column

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