THANKS to Tom McCourt & the Tibbetts Family.
For years, I have been watching Moab move farther and farther away from its roots, to the point where it seems few people even know the history of the place anymore. Some of them don’t know OR care, but I think there are still many who have a respect for the past (I hope so, at least).Last winter I read Tom McCourt’s book on Bill Tibbetts and think it’s his finest work. I knew a bit about Bill,but the story was told so beautifully and I felt it was a very moving tribute, not just to Bill, but to those far off times.I see Moab as some alien world now, and I feel the most significant contribution I can make with the Zephyr these days, is to try and preserve the past in some fashion, or at least make it available for those readers who are interested. With Tom’s permission, the Canyonlands Natural History Association who published it, and with the good wishes and approval of Bill Tibbetts’ son Ray and the Tibbetts Family, we are pleased and honored to offer, over the next few months, excerpts from Tom’s excellent portrayal of ‘the Last Robbers Roost Outlaw.” JS
With the coming of spring, Ephraim Moore began moving his cows off the high country and back to his established and “rightful” range along the White Rim and Elaterite Basin. The winter grass had saved the herd, and Eph felt it was his duty now to pull back and leave the Big Flat to the previous users.
Bill was reluctant to move back to the slim pickings of the river bottoms. He wanted to stay on the Big Flat. Ephraim didn’t argue, he just gathered his own stock and pointed them back down the trail. Bill did send most of his mother’s cows with Ephraim, but those wearing his own brand, the T-4, he kept on top
of the mesa. It was open range and no one could legally make him move. Besides, he was never one to duck a good fight. He wanted to see what Albert Beach and John Jackson were made of after all the threats they had made last fall. Every time he crossed paths with those men they were sullen and angry. They were even angrier when they learned that
Bill would be staying on the Big Flat after Ephraim had moved his cows off.
Running cattle on the open range with few rules and regulations made competition fierce among the early stockmen. With few clear boundaries and not many fences, it is not surprising that thievery was a big problem. Rustling was a quick and easy way to increase the size of a herd and the rewards were great if a person never got caught. Small, unbranded calves were stolen often, and many cowboys kept “running irons” in their saddlebags. The branding tool was used to “fix” or modify a “hard to read” brand on a cow of “questionable” ownership. There were many stories of lonesome cowboys coming onto a cattle range pushing a small group of skinny old cows, and then marketing a couple of hundred steers in just three or four years.
To some cowboys, it was like a game to see who could get away with eating a neighbor’s beef. Initially, young Bill Tibbetts was not above playing the game. He rustled up some camp meat in the early days and got into trouble with Uncle Ephraim. When Ephraim discovered what Bill had done, he was so angry that he took his camp outfit and moved a few miles away, refusing to eat or even be near the stolen beef. Bill was careful after that, not to do anything illegal that might upset the older man. They were partners and they needed to be friends.
In June 1924, Bill killed and butchered one of his own calves for camp meat. Not long after that, another cattleman, A.T. Taylor, came by his abandoned camp and found the entrails, head, and hide. Taylor knew the camp belonged to Bill, and he suspected the calf might have been stolen, or so he said. He rode back to Moab and reported the incident to other ranchers who ran cattle in the area.
Three other ranchers, Albert Beach, John Jackson, and Owen Riordan, the same three who had confronted Bill and Ephraim when they first moved their cows to the Big Flat, rode out to investigate. As a deputy sheriff for Grand County, Albert Beach gave the investigation an official status.
The men rummaged through the abandoned camp and inspected the remains of the butchered calf. It wasn’t reported in the newspaper, and it never came out in court, but many years later, a man named Otho Murphy, who was an uncle to the sheriff, and whose family owned the Murphy Cattle Company, told Bill’s son Ray that he was there with the ranchers during the investigation. Otho said the earmark on the dead calf clearly belonged to Amy Allred, Bill’s mother, but one of the ranchers beat the ear off with a rock to destroy that evidence.
After “investigating” the calf kill, the three ranchers followed “suspicious tracks” down the Horsethief Trail to the Green River where they found ten head of their own cattle in the willows along the river. They said it was obvious that the cows had been driven there, and another cow and calf had been killed during the steep descent by falling off a ledge, making twelve head in all. None of those men ranged cows along the river bottoms and they were sure the cattle had been stolen, even though no brands had been altered and the cows were not corralled. Not far from where they found the cows, they came upon a camp occupied by Bill Tibbetts and Tom Perkins.
The ranchers had a heated discussion with Bill and Tom, there along the river, with each side giving a different account of what happened and what was said. Deputy Beach and John Jackson got their version printed in the newspaper. After the confrontation, the ranchers rode back to Moab to file a complaint with the county court.
Feeling secure in their innocence, and not fully understanding the trouble they were in, Bill and Tom shrugged off the incident and went about their business. They had cattle to care for.
A few days later, Bill, Tom, and little Kenny Allred were camped in Taylor Canyon, working a big herd of cows. Ephraim was in Elaterite Basin, looking after his interests there. It was still morning when Sheriff Murphy and a posse of half-a-dozen men came riding into the camp.
“Hello, Sheriff Murphy, what brings you out here in the snakes and lizards on a fine day like this?”
“I got a warrant for your arrest,” the lawman said, very matter of fact.
“A warrant for my arrest? What the hell are you talkin’ about?” Bill said with genuine surprise.
“I got a warrant for your arrest on charges of grand larceny, Bill. Stealin’ cows. You and Perkins both. I gotta take you back to Moab to face the charges.”
“Bullshit,” Bill said, rather forcefully. “We didn’t steal any cows.”
“You can tell it to the judge,” the sheriff answered, sitting back in the saddle with his hand on his thigh, right close to the big hog-leg of a revolver he wore on his belt. “My job is not to argue the case. I’m just here to take you in.”
“We didn’t steal any damn cows!” Tom Perkins interjected from the sidelines, stepping forward in a righteous rage.
“I’m sure you’ll get a chance to present your case,” the sheriff said curtly, turning slightly in the saddle to face Perkins. A few of the posse members began to fidget and feel for their sidearms.
“Hold on a minute,” Bill said anxiously, trying to calm things down a bit. “You better explain this. Whose cows did we steal, and when?”
“There was a complaint filed that you killed one of Albert Beach’s calves last week,” the sheriff said without emotion. “And you boys drove another dozen head off the range and killed two of ‘em in the ledges.”
“That’s bullshit,” Bill growled. “I killed one of my own calves last week, and I can prove it. Those other cows came down the trail on their own. They’ve been down on the river for a couple a weeks now. We told old man Beach and John Jackson all about it when they came to our camp the other day.”
“Did you know whose cows they were?”
“Why didn’t you push them back up on top, and who killed that cow and calf ?”
“Two of them cows died in the quicksand tryin’ to get a drink in the river,” Bill explained. “I can show you the spot. And we didn’t push the rest of ‘em back up on top because it was none of our business. Jackson and Beach can take care of their own damn cows, we got plenty to do.”
“Well, my deputy and John Jackson tell a much different story,” the sheriff said impatiently. “I’m sorry, fellers, but I’ll have to take you back to face the charges.”
“Damn it, sheriff,” Bill said with controlled anger as he reaching out to hold Tom Perkins back. “You and me have known each other for a long time. Hell, I worked for your dad when I was a kid. I’m not afraid to face these charges, but damn it, we can’t go with you today. You can see we’ve got this big bunch of cattle gathered and we haven’t even started branding yet. It’ll take two weeks to round this bunch up again if we turn ‘em out today. We’ve got to get this branding done and who knows when we’ll be back. Tom and me will come in Thursday and turn ourselves in. How’s that?”
Before the sheriff could answer, a big posse member stepped down from his horse and walked a few steps toward Bill, swaggering like the big dog in the neighborhood while rolling up his sleeves.
“You don’t seem to understand,” the man said. “We got a warrant for your arrest and we’re takin’ you in. You come and go peaceful, or by Gawd, we’ll fight.”
Bill stepped forward with his fists and his hackles up. “By Gawd, we will,” he said, melting the bigger man with his steady gaze and rock solid boxing stance.
The bully stood in surprised silence for a moment, and then peeked back over his shoulder to look for reinforcements. The other posse members were still sitting on their horses, looking on like uninvolved spectators. The sheriff was smiling.
“Get back on your horse, Jake,” the sheriff spat. “We don’t need none of that.”
The sheriff turned back to Bill. “Will you give me your word that you’ll come in on Thursday and
give yourself up?”
“You got my word,” Bill promised.
“And make it Thursday morning so I don’t have to spend the day worryin’ about it?” the sheriff added.
“Thursday morning. You got my word,” Bill promised again.
“And you’ll have Tom Perkins with you?”
“Tom and me will be in together,” Bill said. And then he gave Tom a quick look with a raised eyebrow.
Tom nodded agreement. “You got my word.”
“Okay,” the sheriff conceded. “I’ll be in my office Thursday morning so we can take care of the paperwork.”
“Wait a minute,” the humiliated bully growled from his seat back on top of his horse. “You’re not gonna let this guy just go back to his business. We rode all the way out here to take him in. You can’t just let him go.”
“I’ve known Bill for a long time,” the sheriff answered. “His word is good enough for me. I’ll place him under arrest on Thursday.”
With that, the sheriff turned and started riding away. The posse members followed obediently, stringing out in single file, none of them bothering to look back.
Bill, Tom, and Kenny Allred stood for a while watching them go. Then Bill turned to Kenny and said: “Don’t just stand there with your mouth open, Kid. Get a fire goin’. We got calves to brand.”
The boys worked hard, and by Wednesday evening they had all of the branding done. They rode all night to reach Moab by Thursday morning. Kenny slept most of the way sitting in the saddle while Bill led his horse. By mid-morning on Thursday, Kenny was at his mother’s house in Moab, and Bill and Tom were in jail.
Once in jail, Bill and Tom Perkins secured the services of Knox Patterson, the only available lawyer in town. Unfortunately, the man was a member of another cattle ranching family in the Big Flat area. Moab was a small town in an ocean of wilderness. There was a small gene pool and almost everyone was related.
The lawyer wanted a retainer to secure his services, but Bill and Tom didn’t have any money. Finally, they negotiated an agreement in which Bill signed over his brand. It was a fairly common practice. By signing over the brand, the lawyer secured a lien on anything wearing that brand, be it cattle, horses, saddles, tack, or whatever else, until the legal fee was satisfied. It was a good deal for the lawyer.
A few days later the ambitious young attorney was in court defending Bill and Tom at a preliminary hearing. The newspaper printed a summary of the hearing.
After the preliminary hearing, Bill and Tom were taken back to their jail cell. There was no way the boys could hope to make bail. Two thousand dollars each was impossibly steep and Bill was mad at their attorney for not arguing for a lower bail. He was also angry that he and Tom had not been allowed to speak in their own defense. Later that evening, their attorney came to the jail to consult with his clients.
“That was a damn poor performance in court today,” Bill growled angrily. “I sure as hell expected better from you. Why didn’t you stick up for us when you had the chance? You just sat on your hands and let those lying buzzards and their lawyers walk all over us. Why didn’t you argue for a lower bail, for Gawd’s sake? This could go on for months. We got work to do, and besides, the chow in here would gag a maggot. You should stop by for breakfast in the morning.”
The young attorney in the expensive suit sat in brooding silence for a time, rolling a pencil in his fingers with his face all pinched up tight. He then went off on a tirade of his own.
“There isn’t much I can do for a couple of outlaws like you,” he said angrily. “You boys are in big trouble. More than you know. They’ve got a whole trainload of evidence against you they haven’t even presented yet, and when they do, you two are likely to hang. I’m not kidding. You might get the death penalty before this thing is done. You ought to pray to God they only give you thirty years. Hell, bitch at me for not doing a good job. Nobody could get you two out of this mess. My advice to you is to bust out of here and run like hell. It might be your only chance.”
“I want my brand back,” Bill said with angry eyes.
“To hell with you,” the attorney hissed. “This trial might go on for months and you don’t own enough to make it worth my time. I’ll be working for nothing before we see the end of this. I should have made you sign over your pocketknife and belt buckle, too.”
With that, the lawyer in the shiny shoes stood up and rattled a tin cup on the bars to summon the deputy. Before he walked out, he turned, smiled sweetly, and said, “We’ll try to have a more pleasant discussion sometime next week after you boys have had time to simmer down some. In the meantime, you can hire another attorney if you think it’ll do you any good. I think the nearest good one is over in Grand Junction.”
As the lawyer and the lawman walked away down the street, the boys could hear the lawyer talking to the deputy: “Those thievin’ bastards have some nerve to be criticizing me. Abe Lincoln himself couldn’t win an acquittal for those two.”
After that, the jail cell got very dark and very small. Bill and Tom stood at the window bars and watched the moon come up over the mountain. There was a whole big world out there and they were stuck in jail. Thirty years? Life? A hangman’s noose? Neither of them slept at all that night.