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
After watching the sheriff and his posse start back up the river with the boat engine spitting, coughing, and belching smoke, Bill and Tom went down to their boat and retrieved the remainder of their supplies and equipment. They then carried everything, in two or three trips, away from the river and cached nearly all of it in a small, sheltered alcove among the rocks. They kept only the bare essentials to take with them, intending to come back on horses to retrieve the stash. With sage limbs they erased their tracks
to the cache as best they could, counting on the desert wind and a promised summer rainstorm to finish the job. It was almost dark when they finally topped the White Rim and began walking north to find the Shafer Trail. They walked along the edge of the rim on the slickrock to avoid leaving any tracks. Luck was with them and their path was lit by moonlight as they made their escape from the river.
Bill and Tom won their footrace to the top of the Shafer Trail and the Big Flat. It took the sheriff and his posse most of three days and nights to travel the 45 miles back to Moab and sound the alarm. In spite of what was reported in the newspaper, the sheriff didn’t spend that time looking for outlaws, he was slogging along on foot in the brush and mosquitoes of the river bottom, trying to get back home. The sabotaged boat motor had quit him just a few miles upstream from where he left the outlaws.
The sheriff ’s delay in getting back to town gave Bill and Tom time to climb the Shafer Trail, catch some of their own horses on the Big Flat, retrieve their cached goods, and disappear before the second posse arrived on the scene.
Back in Moab, Sheriff Murphy deputized the ranchers who were Bill and Tom’s accusers and set them on the trail like a pack of bloodhounds. Those men knew the high country, the Big Flat and Island in the Sky, and they knew the two fugitives. But no one knew the White Rim and the river bottoms like Bill and Tom. The outlaws would be damn hard to catch down under the rims.
Back in town, Bill and Tom’s families were questioned at length. Someone had helped the boys escape and the sheriff wanted to know who did it. Ed Cottrell, the man who refused to escape with Bill and Tom, was true to his word and never told the sheriff what he knew. Years later, he would tell Bill’s son, Ray, all about the night his father broke out of jail.
By Wednesday, six days after the jailbreak, Sheriff Murphy and his posse were camped in the Big Flat while scouring the countryside for the fugitives. What they didn’t know was that Bill and Tom had watched them make camp, and after dark that first night the boys had crawled up so close they could hear the men talking. The sheriff and posse members were sitting around a campfire drinking coffee and discussing plans for running the outlaws down. The fugitives were hiding in the bushes nearby and listening to every word. It was an entertaining evening for the two young outlaws and it provided them with valuable information. Later that night, the boys discussed running off the posse’s horses, but decided not to do that. The posse might get discouraged and go home if they couldn’t find the fugitives. The boys decided to watch and wait rather than provoke the lawmen.
For a week or two, Bill and Tom kept hidden in the roughest parts of the rugged country. They traveled on slickrock at every opportunity to keep from making any tracks; and when they moved, they took extra horses. Extra horses were good insurance if a fast getaway was needed, and extra horse tracks confused the lawmen. Posse members were looking for the boot tracks of two men or the tracks of two horses. When they cut a trail made by four or five horses, they naturally assumed it was made by another group of posse members out doing their civic duty.
But it didn’t take long for the outlaws’ supplies to run low. The getaway boat had been stocked with enough food to last for a couple of weeks, and a couple of weeks went by fast. On one occasion, driven by hunger and a mischievous spirit of sweet revenge, the boys were able to sneak into the posse camp during the day and steal items of food and supplies while the lawmen were out beating the bushes to find them. But it was risky business and they were almost caught. The lawmen kept an armed guard at their camp after that.
Finally, when the pressure got to be too much, the boys abandoned the high mesa and dropped down to the White Rim above the river. They had a secret hideout there in a big cave just under the rim. Bill had found the cave a few years earlier while setting traps. The cave could be accessed on slickrock without leaving any tracks and it was big enough to accommodate horses. An added bonus was a spring of cold, clear water at the back of the cave. The outlaws spent several days in that hideout.
“Well, that’s the last of the food,” Tom said as he tossed an empty tin can on the trash pile at the back of the cave. “What now?”
“We got a lot less stuff to pack,” Bill replied.
“Yeah, but we’re getting’ purdy sucked-up, too. We’re gonna have to get some groceries somehow, and purdy soon. You got any suggestions?”
“Yeah, but we can’t get to any of our old cow camps. That posse is out for blood. I’ve never seen citizens so dedicated. They’ve got every trail and river crossing covered and they ain’t lettin’ up. We’re trapped here under this rim.”
“Aw, they’ll get tired one of these days and go home,” Bill insisted.
“They’ve already done that and come back again with fresh horses.” Tom complained. “And it seems like more posse members show up with each new group. You musta really put a burr under that sheriff ’s blanket when you nailed him to that sandbar with that 30-30.”
“Yeah, he might have taken it personal,” Bill smiled. “I’ll bet the voters are all laughing at him, too. He’ll want to take us home tied over his saddle like a couple a dead deer, just to get even.”
“Do you think they might really shoot us if they catch us?”
“Damn right. That no-good lawyer said we might hang for cattle rustlin’. Add a jailbreak and shootin’ at the sheriff to that, and we’ve committed a capital offense. They’ll shoot us down like a couple of mad dogs. It’ll save the expense and trouble of going to trial.”
“Well, one thing’s for sure,” Tom said. “We’ll have to get us a new lawyer if they do catch us and take us back alive. That last one didn’t work out so good.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Bill said with a wicked grin. “I’ll bet that lawyer is madder than the sheriff.”
“Well, you know that attorney kept badgering us to pay him up front. But I didn’t want to pay the guy until he earned his fee. Heaven knows I got nothin’ against paying a day’s wages for a day’s work, but when he kept insisting that he wasn’t going to help us unless we paid him first, I got suspicious. So, when he suggested that I sign over my brand, I thought it was a good idea.
He’s now the proud owner of the Rocking-T.”
“But your brand is the T-4,” Tom said, somewhat perplexed.
“That’s the one I use, all right,” Bill smiled. “But I own the Rocking-T, too. At least I did until I signed it over to that lawyer guy. I started using the Rocking-T back when I first got out of the army. I haven’t used it for years.”
“Oh, my Gawd,” Tom said with his eyes wide and his hand over his mouth. “You mean you signed over a brand with no property attached to it?”
“There might be a crippled-up, three-titted old cow out there someplace still wearin’ that mark,” Bill laughed.
“We’re in bigger trouble than I thought,” Tom moaned. “No wonder that sheriff and posse are so damned hot on our trail. That slick city lawyer is beatin’ the drum and kickin’ everybody out of town to go hunt you down. You made a damn fool out of him, too.”
“I’d a made it right with the guy if he’d done us a good job,” Bill insisted. “But I was suspicious right from the start, especially since his relatives run one of those cow outfits trying to kick us off the range. Lookin’ back on how it all turned out, I think I did the right thing. What do you think?”
“You’ll be the death of us yet, Bill. Is there anybody in Grand County you haven’t got mad at us?”
“The women all love me,” Bill smiled, posing dramatically with a hand inside his shirt like Napoleon. “There’s somethin’ about handsome outlaws that attracts women like flypaper.”
“Well, I hope women are attracted to skinny outlaws, cause that’s how we’re gettin’ to be. I’ve taken my belt up two notches already. What we gonna do about getting somethin’ to eat?”
“We got lots of bullets but we can’t shoot,” Bill reminded him. “Those lawmen will come like vultures if they hear us shoot. So, getting’ a deer or shootin’ a beef is out of the question.”
“If we could rig up some fishing line we might get some catfish out of the river,” Tom said hopefully. “But we ain’t got no hooks.”
“We can dig more sego bulbs and set a few more rabbit snares,” Bill suggested. “Fat rabbit goes down pretty good when you can catch one.”
“Yeah, but we’ve been catchin’ more chipmunks than rabbits,” Tom complained. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not above eating another chipmunk. It’s just that when we divide up a chipmunk, I think I ought to get the hams once in a while instead of just the shoulders.”
“You crybaby,” Bill laughed. “I caught that chipmunk all by myself and I deserved to get the hams. You catch your own chipmunk if you want a bigger share.”
“Chipmunks must be the bottom of the barrel for us outlaws,” Tom said wistfully, “I never figured on any of this when we were planning that jailbreak.”
“It can still get worse,” Bill assured him. “Those Paiutes used to eat lizards, snakes, and grasshoppers
to survive out here in this country.”
“Would you really eat a snake?” Tom asked.
“Damn right,” Bill promised. “I’ll eat grasshoppers, too, before I’ll go back to that jailhouse. I’ll eat my horse, saddle, boots, and belt before I’ll walk out of here and surrender to that sheriff.”
The boys sat for a while contemplating the seriousness of their situation. Then Bill looked over at Tom with deep and brooding eyes. His mood was suddenly deadly serious. “No, by Gawd,” he said. “I’ll be like that white stallion over on the narrows. I’ll jump from one of these damn ledges before I’ll let that sheriff put me in chains. Nobody is gonna hang Bill Tibbetts.”
After a pause, Tom said quietly, “I’m with you on that, Bill. I’ll jump, too.”
Neither of them spoke for a long time after that. They were thinking.
The boys never got around to eating their saddles and boots, but they starved down enough to eat a few grasshoppers. In fact, Bill and Tom lived on grasshoppers for most of a week.
The Paiutes roasted crickets on the hot coals of a fire. Bill and Tom tried grasshoppers cooked that way, and they weren’t bad. Of course, they weren’t good either. Next they tried the big bugs boiled in water, sun-dried, and dipped in salt. But they still tasted like grasshoppers, no matter how they fixed them. So finally, they just picked them off the bushes and ate them raw and cold, picking their teeth with the long, wiry legs.
Bill joked that it didn’t take long to get all of the grasshoppers he ever wanted to eat, but eating grasshoppers did give him an advantage. After a few days of eating grasshoppers, he could outrun any rabbit on the desert and catch it with his bare hands. It might be that eating grasshoppers makes a person run real fast, or, maybe he just wanted to catch that rabbit real bad. Either way, a fat rabbit was in big trouble when grasshopper-eatin’ Bill Tibbetts was around.
Late one morning during the starving times, the boys were on horseback in Holeman Basin on the White Rim above the Green River. They were desperate and looking for a calf they could rope and kill with a knife for food. But as they topped a rise they spotted several horsemen off in the distance toward the north, coming their way at a fast clip. It was the posse. They had been spotted and the wolf pack was on their trail.
The boys turned and fled toward the south, staying on the White Rim. A few miles down the rim they passed under Grand View Point and continued following the White Rim on the Colorado River side toward Moab. They were purposely leaving a good trail that was easy to follow.
But once they were well ahead of the posse and out of sight around the point of the mesa, they turned their horses to the slickrock edge of the White Rim and doubled back the way they had come. Before the posse came in sight they had dropped down a secret trail under the White Rim and hid in their outlaw cave. A short time later they could hear the posse riding past only a short distance above them on the rim. The boys held their horses’ noses to keep them from whinnying and hoped the posse wouldn’t spot the scuffmarks on the slickrock where they had traveled. They could hear men talking and the clatter of horseshoes on the rocks as the posse passed overhead and continued on their way.
Just when they figured the posse had passed them by, they heard the clicking of hooves coming around the slickrock shelf to their hideout. The men looked at each other with wide and frightened eyes. They were trapped. The jig was up. Surrender or fight? Kill or be killed? Both men raised their guns, not knowing what to expect.
The sound of hooves got louder and louder until a big fat desert bighorn sheep walked around the corner and then froze like a statue, there in the sunshine. The big ram rolled his eyes in surprise at the men and horses standing in the shadows only a few feet away. The men stared back over the sights of their guns. The sheep licked his lip in nervous anxiety and then turned stiffly and walked away, going back the way he had come, acting as if he knew the outlaws had been there the whole time.
“Good Gawd,” Tom gasped, relieved to the point of giddiness. “I thought we was goners for sure.”
“I’ll bet he was comin’ to this cave for a drink of water,” Bill said. “Did you see how fat that old buck sheep was? I’m so hungry I almost shot him, to hell with the sheriff and the posse. We gotta get outta here and go somewhere we can shoot some food, Tom. We’re starvin’ to death. I’m ready to let the sparrow hawks have the grasshoppers. Let’s get out of here where we can shoot a deer, or a beef, or a rabbit. Anything. Hell, I can smell those roasted sheep chops and that old sheep took them with him.”
“That posse is still purdy darn close, Bill. I’m afraid they’ll spot us if we make a run for it.”
“Damn them to hell,” Bill growled. “They’ll spot us anyway if we stay here. In just a short time now they’ll be figurin’ out we gave them the slip and they’ll be comin’ back along this rim lookin’ for where we went. We’re trapped in this cave like a couple a rabbits in a cage. The only chance we got is to go off this rim where they can’t follow.”
“There’s no trail off this rim,” Tom said with some alarm.
“That’s why they won’t follow us,” Bill said with his mind made up. “If we go back on top and try to outrun them, the only way we can go is north, up the Green River where they saw us this morning. If we do that, they’ll chase us all the way to Vernal. All the trails and river crossings are covered by lawmen, you know that. We probably won’t make it, especially when they start using those doggone telephones and automobiles.”
Bill continued, “But if we drop off this rim to the river, where there isn’t any trail, we’ll probably kill our horses and ourselves getting down, so they won’t follow, even if they see our dust. They’re not that desperate. And once we get to the river – if we get to the river – we got several choices as to which way we can go and they won’t know which choice we made. It’ll give us a good head start to make our getaway.”
“I knew you’d get us killed one of these days,” Tom grumbled as he stuffed the 30-30 into his saddle scabbard.
“Shut up and tighten your saddle cinch,” Bill warned. “We might as well go for broke. No sense stayin’ here and riskin’ a gunfight. I’m tired of eatin’ grasshoppers and I’m ready to make a change. If we die, we die. It’s time to follow that old white stallion to hell.”
It really was a suicide mission, an act of complete desperation. The horses were aimed at the rough country near the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, that impossibly rugged landscape below Grand View Point. The outlaws and their horses went straight down from the White Rim into red sandstone and steep talus slopes toward the river bottoms. The Green River was over a mile away and more than a thousand feet lower in elevation.
The descent was unbelievably steep and treacherous. And once they were committed, the boys had no possibility of ever turning back. The horses slid down the near-vertical slopes in the shale, sand, and gravel. Sometimes the horses skidded down on stiff legs and sometimes they slid on their backsides, nostrils flared and eyes wide with terror. The cowboys clung to the horses desperately, sometimes in the saddle and sometimes sliding in the dirt alongside the animals. Showers of loose rocks tumbled down the steep grade ahead of the struggling animals, bouncing and skipping over the ledges and crashing into the canyon below. They scrambled over rocks, brush, and cactus, through deep ravines and off low canyon walls, jumping when there was no other way to get down or around an obstacle.
Finally, somehow, they broke out on the riverbank near the cool and welcoming waters of the Green River. The horses were skinned and bleeding, the men scraped and bruised, the saddles scuffed and covered with dirt, but they had made it, alive and still with the horses. Their gamble had paid off. If the posse ever figured out where they went, no one bothered to follow. Bill Tibbetts was right about that. The lawmen were not that desperate.