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Cattle Rustling on the Cimarron River

By Harry E. Chrisman (copyright)

Author's Note: The essential facts for this article were supplied me by the late Bernard Lemert, cattleman and former livestock inspector for the Southwestern Cattleman's Association. Since all of the participants of the story are dead and those who took part in the cattle thefts noted left no descendants, I feel that there is no harm in telling the facts of the matter since it is pertinent history of the Cimarron region.  H.E.C.

With the first great wave of settlement by grangers, cattlemen of the Cimarron area found themselves forced to cut their herds to lowest limits in order to find feed on the sparse range along the Beaver River, the Cimarron and their tributaries.

The great storms during the winter of 1885-86 had done their part in cutting down the numbers of livestock on the range, and many ranchers quit, others made no effort to re-build herds to their former numbers.

As a consequence, considerable winter joblessness was created among the cowboys of the region. Among the cowboys riding the grubline that following winter of 1887 was a youth of about twenty-five years named Bill Kelly.

Kelly was a good hand and on the grubline he ran across a friend with whom he had worked on the roundups, George Hughes of the XI.

The two were soon joined by another, an older man, known only as "Dutch." This latter fellow had earned a bad reputation in the country around Dodge City as a horse thief.

Make Deal at Figure 4

That winter while on the grubline. the trio stopped one week-end at the Figure 4 ranch, on the Cimarron a few miles east of present day Liberal, Kansas.

Cooper and Givens were the principals in the Figure 4, and the ranch branded with three number 4's on the left side of the cows. Their horse brand was a single 4 on the left hip. Their post office was at O'dee, at the Adobe Wall Trail crossing of Crooked Creek, though their livestock ranged along the Cimarron.

When the three grubline riders talked with James I. (Jim) Given at the ranch that Sunday, Given made them a proposition.

All ranchers were having difficulty holding range against the encroaching settlers. Most ranchers felt it only fair to have their cowboys homestead a "claim" on their old range, then "sell" it to the ranch when they had proved up. Many of the great land-holding ranches were, in fact, started in this manner.

So when Given made Kelly, Hughes and "Dutch" the proposition, they took him up with alacrity. Grubline riding through five or six winter months was a poor substitute for a job, so the cowboys were not greatly to blame in trying to earn a living in whatever manner they could do so. In the deal they would get fed by the Figure 4, draw some pay.

Cattle Come Up Missing

Not long after Cooper & Givens had worked out their deal with the trio, other nearby cattlemen began missing cattle. It was natural, they agreed, that with idle cowboys living on the range at reduced pay there would be cattle theft. Otherwise the great free-enterprise system in which each man helped himself to all he could get would cease functioning on the cattle range. But the cattlemen didn't like it a bit.

About this time a young fellow known as Kid York dropped his reins in the Figure 4 ranch yard and dismounted. He made himself acquainted with the other men and soon became the acknowledged spokesman for the "Homesteaders," as the trio of Kelly, Hughes and "Dutch" called themselves.

York agreed to take out a claim as had the others, and under the name Frank Smith (an alias) he did so.

York was later believed to be a member of the "Doc" Middleton gang of horse thieves who stole Indian ponies from the reservations in Nebraska and Dakota and delivered them south in exchange for stolen Mexican horses.

Middleton's gang had operated from the late Seventies into the early Eighties, before it was finally broken up.

Cattle Rustling on Increase

With the addition of York to the "Homesteaders" gang, range cattle now commenced to be missed in larger quantities, Fred Taintor losing several hundred fine 2 and 3-year-old steers.

Taintor had 35,000 head of cattle on Taintor Creek and Crooked Creek and on the Cimarron river in No Man's Land. He branded with a GG and a cropped right ear.

York's "Homesteaders" brought a herd of 300 head up on Crooked Creek, held them for about six months and then took them to Dodge City and shipped them, after venting the Taintor brand and falsifying and forging a Bill of Sale. Taintor had been robbed before.

It was a by-word among Beaver City residents that "Taintor will never note the shortage until spring roundup" when they bought beef from the unemployed cowboys and thieves that preyed upon his herds.

Soon another loose-living character was running with the "Homesteaders," a former Chitwood gang member known as "Wash" Stevens.

The Chitwood gang, Jim, Kit and George, had recently been run out of the Strip and Stevens, looking for friendly thieves to tie up with had selected the "Homesteaders."

Wash Stevens was not a really bad man, in fact he had once saved a Kansas man's life when caught by the Chitwoods attempting to steal back a horse of which they had robbed him.

Stevens drew up an agreement by which the Kansas man agreed to stay out of No Man's Land in return for his life. He never went back!

Stevens and a friend, Hudson, once stole thirty head of horses in New Mexico, took them to the Chickasaw Nation in southeast Oklahoma to sell.

Tobe (Red) Odem and some U.S. Marshals caught Hudson. "Wash" Stevens eluded the lawmen, walked four straight nights and hid out days, sustained only by eating ears of green corn. At the ranch where Odem was foreman, Wash stole Odem's best saddle horse and returned to the Strip!

"Homesteaders" Genuine Menace

The "Homesteaders" were rapidly becoming a genuine threat to the cattlemen in the area, and it was not long until opposition to them commenced to organize.

Cattle were missing from herds near Dodge City, Englewood, Ashland, Deep Hole and other points as well as in No Man's Land.

While the old-time cattlemen were pretty lenient to an occasional beef being butchered to feed a hunger homesteader's family in the cold winter months, this was butchering of a different quantity.

A half dozen head of fine beeves would be lost over night, and only the heads and a bloody spot on the prairie mark where the thieves had done their work.

It was a loss, such as this, sustained by Laben Lemert, father of the late Bernard Lemert of Liberal, that brought to a head the trouble caused by the "Homseteaders" gang of cattle thieves.

Laben Lemert Loses Cattle

Laben Lemert had lost several fine beeves from his own herd as well as from the cattle of the Crooked L which had been entrusted to him to watch on Crooked Creek. In the column Cimarron Township, The Arkalon News, January 3, 1889 appeared the following:

"A short time ago Mr. Lemert went west on business, was gone five or six days, and while he was away someone of the sneaking thieves that have been visiting our valley for two or three years past visited the ranch and drove away seven head of beef cattle. It is said that the beef was identified in a certain market, in the town of Liberal.

". . . We understand that there has been steps taken to organize a vigilance committee in this locality. If there is a place on earth that needs it worse than another, Southwest Kansas is the place. For more than two years, or since the settlement of The Strip it has been the cry from the border counties that their stock has been driven away into the Strip. This county, and Meade, has suffered severely for the last 15 months from the loss of cattle; Stevens and Morton counties from the loss of horses . . . "

Lemert had talked with several neighboring cattlemen and they agreed to "make a settlement" with the thieves, the first time they caught them with the goods.

They, knew that Kid York's "Homesteader's Gang" were the culprits, that they would have to watch them closely around or near the Figure 4 ranch.

Since the Figure 4 ranch had recently changed hands, the purchaser being Samuel Moore, and Indianapolis, Indiana, man, and Cooper and Givens would have no further part in the matter, it was agreed to sit tight and wait until the new rancher had appeared, then to enlist his aid, if possible, in uncovering the thieves. This was worked out satisfactorily.

About this time, Mr. Lemert and his son, Bernard, were riding for cattle on their "Crutch L" ranch, between the crossing of the Adobe Walls Trail and the Jones & Plumer Trail on the Cimarron. Riding with the Lemerts were Messers Botts, Shore and Lane, cattlemen neighbors.

Come Upon Thieves

Coming down a draw that led into the Crooked Creek valley, they spied three men butchering several head of beeves which lay scattered on the hillside where they had shot them. They had heard rifle shots not long before and now understood the reason for it.

Laben Lemert was the only one carrying a rifle. He immediately suggested that they ride down and find out who was killing beef on their range. The other men were willing to ride along with him, but Bernard spoke up, thinking it might be dangerous business to ride up on three butchers who might all be armed.

Bernard's father was certain he was equal to the occasion with his one rifle, since he had been a Civil War veteran and had been in a number of engagements including the bloody battle of Shiloh.

But now Shore and one of the others agreed that it would be riding into unnecessary trouble, since they did not know if it was even their livestock that was being butchered.

So all agreed to wait and make a check of their own stock. Lemert's count showed that he was short six head of beeves, the exact number the men were butchering that day.

Discover Fresh Butchered Beef

The following day the Lemerts, father and son, rode down to the Figure 4 ranch. A wagon stood in the yard, the wagon sheets drawn over the jets, but through a hole in the sheet, Laben Lemert saw a load of fresh-butchered beef.

Kid York and his friends, three more of them, including Kelly, Hughes and "Dutch," were within the ranch house having dinner.

It may be added here that it was a time when neither Cooper and Givens nor the ranch owner, Sam Moore, were present at the ranch, the Figure 4 cowboys and the cook being all present at the ranch.

The Lemerts ate dinner, said nothing about the wagon in the yard. When they were through, Laben Lemert rode to Meade to swear out a warrant for the arrest of York and his gang. He later told Bernard what transpired at Meade.

At Meade, Lemert senior talked with Sheriff Eckhart. The officer tried to dissuade him from bringing charges or asking for the arrest of the men. When Lemert insisted, the sheriff told him that he had such a bad cold that he didn't want to aggravate it making the long, cold ride down to the Figure 4 ranch.

No Cooperation from Sheriff

Lemert then offered to be sworn as a deputy and make the arrests himself, the sheriff to provide two or three townsmen as a posse. The sheriff argued that he couldn't find two men in Meade who would tackle the job.

Lemert then said he would go to Plains where he would get two men who would serve, he named them as Jim Neal and a man named Plymell. They could arrest any ten rustlers in the southwest if deputized, he told the sheriff. But the sheriff refused to act, so Lemert left Meade in disgust.

Meanwhile, in Meade, one of Kid York's rustlers heard of the dispute going on between Laben Lemert and the sheriff and hightailed it to the Figure 4 to warn the gang.

The informant met the loaded beef-wagon coming out of Skunk Arroyo, southwest of the O'dee post office and store on Crooked Creek. When he told Kid York and the others of Lemert's actions, the group turned the teams around, brought the wagon back toward the Figure 4.

Becoming alarmed, they pulled the wagon alongside a canyon and dumped the cut-up carcasses of the big beeves into the canyon bottom.

O.D. Lemert, Laben Lemert's brother, who ran the store and post office at O'dee told him of seeing the wagon turn around and head westward. A day or so later the Lemerts found the rotting beef at the bottom of the canyon.

Cattlemen's Assn. Acts

The cattlemen's association met annually at Dodge City in general session. But there were also "area" meetings to settle problems and disturbances that affected only a part of their domain.

In these cases they acted almost as a court of law in those days, because of the general weakness of the established forces of law.

The sight of Lemert's fine beeves, cut up and ready for delivery to local markets and homes of the region brought home to the cattlemen the problem with which they were confronted.

No longer could they look upon Kid York and his gang as honest settlers and claim holders, for the young men had evolved into a first-class gang of cattle thieves, bold, energetic, dangerous to all honest men and women of that area.

A definite settlement was indicated, when the cattlemen of the Cimarron area took the matter up and it is notable that large -- scale rustling ceased within a few months of the day the cattlemen rode to the canyon to view the mass of putrefied flesh and bones of what had once been Laben Lemert's finest beeves.

On March 14, 1889, The Arkalon News (successor to the Fargo Springs News and still edited by Abe Stoufer) carried the following story picked up from a Denver paper:

March 14, 1889: "DENVER, COLORADO, MARCH 5-News reached here this evening from Springfield (Kansas), a small town in the Neutral Strip (sic), isolated from any telegraph line, that the settlers who for a year have been suffering greatly at the hands of eighteen rustlers had a week ago warned the gang that unless they immediately left the section they would be hanged. All but five left for other quarters. The five that remained were surrounded Friday night by vigilantes and three captured and hanged. The other two escaped. The names of the dead men are not known."

The names of the three lynched rustlers who plied their trade along the Cimarron were given to the writer as Kid York, Bill Kelly and George Hughes.

Since none of these footloose young wanderers had or left family members in this area, there is no purpose in concealing their names. And with their executions, organized rustling long this part of the Cimarron came to an end.



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