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.
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.
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
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, 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
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.
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.
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
15, 2009 column