The Steer Branded Murder
The Ghost Steer of The Cattle Ranges
WHAT BECAME ………of the hapless yearling with the hideous brand? Available to this narrative are three eye-witness answers. They are so nearly identical that doubtless they signify the same ending. The fourth ———Well, a visiting writing man was in my office yesterday. I told him I was doing the account of the steer branded murder. For a moment he was puzzled, then he said, “Oh, the story of the ghost steer.” That was the way he remembered it. Because its pathos appeals to the hearts of men.
The ghost angle was told to me that windy day of long ago in Alpine, along with the more prosaic facts, with a twinkle in the eye of the narrator.
“It became an outcast from its kind, a lone pariah of the ranges, “said Judge Van Sickle. “Now and then a cowboy riding home in the dusk from a long day’s work would glimpse it on a skyline against the sunset glow, or silhouetted on the rising moon. Then at the sight or sound of the rider it would vanish, fleeing away in the obscurity of the night as if ashamed to be seen———or as if it feared and hated mankind. Like the Wandering Jew of ancient tradition it seemed to be condemned to roam the earth forever without the surcease of death.”
Pity ran through me as my emotions accepted the picture. In my innocence of cowland lore I did not doubt. I could see that lonely animal watching for a moment of the gloaming, half terrified, its feet lightly on earth, ready for flight, then vanishing in a flash of movement . It became to me then and there the pitiful ghost of the cattle ranges.
I embodied some of this pathos and drama in fiction story that I wrote around the The Steer Branded Murder. It was not until years afterward that a light began to dawn. It came soon after I had written the factual story for the Cattleman. Marvin Hunter, Jr., reprinted the tale in his Fort Davis dispatch. Then came the disillusion by the way of a letter to the Dispatch signed by Mrs. Van Sickle.
“I read an article several weeks ago in the Fort Davis Dispatch in regard to the yearling branded “MURDER”, Mrs Van Sickle wrote,”I think I can throw light on the origin of this story.
“It is a fact, of course, that the tragic death of Mr. Powe and the killing that followed were the direct result of the dispute over the yearling, but the first story ever written which wove around these fact the fanciful features of the little yearling was the ‘brain child’ of Judge Van Sickle, and it came about this way:
About the year 1896 Judge Van Sickle was acting as correspondent for the Galveston News, and in response to the paper’s request for more frequent communications he wrote this story, which began something like this:
“Judge Walter Gillis and the writer traveling to Fort Stockton by night saw a lone yearling on the prairie and decided to stop and maverick it. The procedure of roping and tying the animal (Mrs. Van Sickle interpolated ), the heating of the branding iron, etc., were graphically described, the high point on the article being reached when, as they turned the yearling on its side, they beheld, in large letters, the word MURDER. In weird surrounding of the pale moonlight on the lonely land with the sense of murder flashing before them they became frightened and fled.
“That newspaper story is responsible for the ghost of the yearling roaming the wilds and growing gray with the years. Over a period of many years feature story writers, high school students, and in more recent years, college students, have come to Mr. Van Sickle for the story, which he always recounts for them, varying details, perhaps, which is characteristic of him in story telling.
“These facts as to the origin of the fictitious part of the story are true, and coupled with the statement recently written by Marvin Powe, we have no doubt, the true story of the famous yearling in fact and fancy.”
I think I was chagrined, when I read Mrs. Van Sickle’s revelation, that I had so completely swallowed the judge’s ‘ghost’ part of the story that day in his office ——— Of course, Mr. Van Sickle and Judge Gillis did not stop to ‘maverick’ a steer on the prairie, nor flee at sight of the brand. I shall always appreciate Judge Van Sickle’s mystic tale of the steer being an outcast——— It was manna for the writing man.
Mrs. Van Sickle did not derogate the fact of the branding, She was complimenting her husband on being the source of the ‘ghost’ angle, which after all may have been pure fiction. For the steer, remembering the torture of the hot branding iron, may have possessed a dread of men and therefore kept somewhat away from other cattle and men handling them, thus appearing to roam alone.
The Van Sickles are gone now. The Judge, born December 19,1863, died September 14,1941. Mrs. Van Sickle, who was Alma Hartley before he marriage, born June 7, 1870, died October 11,1944. I am indebted to Worth Frazer for these dates.
I once asked Judge Van Sickle what his initial, W, stood for. He fidgeted, “Well,” he said, “ I don’t often tell, it is such an odd name. I was named for a U.S. senator, who fired the first gun for the Confederacy in the Civil War. His name was Wigfall.”
Now to gather up loose ends before we reveal what actually became of the Steer Branded MURDER.
Justice of the Peace Raymond Garnet of Alpine recently told me that he has three links of Henry Harrison Powe’s gold watch chain, given to him by members of the Powe family.
Mrs. Wilson resides now in San Antonio. Long after the death of her foster brother and of her father by gunfire a third tragedy struck. Her husband, T.M. (Mead) Wilson was shot and killed, on December 3,1938, in Presidio county in a difference over a land matter. My wife, Katherine, and I visited Mrs. Wilson September 23-24,1939, at her ranch south of Marfa. It was admiration that we found her strong in kindly Christian courage and fortitude.
Her father, Henry Harrison Powe, was a man of his day and time, a veteran of war, used to firearms and death, himself the loser of an arm. And those were the borderline days when gun-law was giving way to courtlaw. Gilliland, too, was a man of his environment. Likewise the fringe element, the cowmen and the officers. They played their roles and did their duties as they saw them, moulded by circumstances, by traditions of kinship and friendship and their sense of right and wrong.
If anything is gained or given in the writing of this account it surely is that the original killing was uncalled-for———that most killings are tragic and regrettable and needless and useless, useless.
As to the finish of the Steer Branded MURDER———
Newt Gourley wrote “I have seen the little bull a lot of times. The last time, he was in Gene Kelley’s herd that he was taking to Odessa.” Mr. Gourley added that he did not clearly remember the date of the brand on the animal .
Jesse Pruett wrote. “ The murder steer ran on the Leoncita range till he was grown. In attending roundups I saw him a number of times. The branded animal was finally driven north in Eugene Kelley’s trail herd, about 1896.”
And here is what Robert Marvin Powe says in the last paragraph of his account:
“ I suppose I am the only person living that knows (as an eye-witness) what became of the noted bull. There was a man by the name of Bill Allen driving a trail herd to Montana. I asked him if he would take the animal out of the country. He said he would and I got him to put it in the herd and I went with it to the Pecos river at Horse Head Crossing ———that is where they crossed the river and that is the last I ever saw of the brindle bull.”
Any difference in the accounts may be only on the surface. Bill Allen may have been the drive for Kelley, or it may have been the other way around . This writer does not know. At any rate the branded animal was headed north on the long, long trail to oblivion.