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  Outlaw Rule

by Dave Yanko

Slowly peace came to the valley/The Mounties moved away
No more outlaws in the Big Muddy/At least that is what they say.

-- from Big Muddy Country by Michael Burgess

One of the most famous hideouts on the Outlaw Trail.
One of the most famous hideouts
on the OutlawTrail.

THE BIG MUDDY BADLANDS -- One of the most notorious places in North America at the turn of the 20th Century was northern Montana. In Valley County, where the wave of economic expansion into the American Midwest came crashing into the badlands, rustlers and robbers enjoyed a tempting combination of prime pickings and good hideouts.

And if things got too hot in Montana, it was a short ride to safe haven on the north side of 'the line' in Canada. Safe haven, that is, if the pursuers were U.S. lawmen. . .

The plan, so the story goes, was simple enough: Frank Carlyle would blow up the railway bridge just west of Plentywood, Montana, the rest of the Nelson-Jones gang would rob the train, and Christmas 1905 would be trimmed with gold.

But Carlyle, a former Mountie kicked out of the force for making saddle buddies of horse thieves, got drunk and disappeared. The bridge didn't blow up, the robbery didn't occur and gang leaders Sam Kelley (a.k.a. 'Red' Nelson) and Frank Jones were furious.

When Carlyle sobered up, he took a familiar ride north to the Canadian side of the Big Muddy. Here, amid the coulees, buttes, cliffs and gulches, he felt safe.

On Christmas day, two horsemen rode into the yard at the ranch where Carlyle was holed up. Then three riders left the ranch and travelled across the valley floor to a coulee where Frank Carlyle was shot dead. Carlyle Coulee, it's known as today.

Frank Carlyle's murder was a particularly nasty bit of business for this area of the Big Muddy. Most of the outlaws came here to lie low, not to settle personal disputes. They didn't mess with local ranchers, and the local ranchers usually returned the favor.

Michael Burgess and wife Tammy,who paints and operates a craft shop on the ranch.
Michael Burgess
and wife Tammy,
who paints and operates
a craft shop on the ranch.

"There was kind of an understanding that if the outlaws needed a meal, well, they were fed," says Big Muddy rancher Michael Burgess. "But they were expected to not be bothering people, too."

The Big Muddy was known as Station No. 1 on an Outlaw Trail that began in this ruggedly serene valley in southern Saskatchewan and snaked down through Montana, Colorado and Arizona into Cludad Juarez, Mexico. Butch Cassidy, of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame, is credited with organizing the trail. The crafty outlaw fashioned the route on the Pony Express model, with fresh horses pastured at friendly ranches every 10 to 12 miles along the way. Lawmen pursuing Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang were almost always left in the dust.

The Burgess ranch is situated in the valley a little more than a mile from the old North-West Mounted Police post at Big Muddy. The flow of outlaws back and forth across the border spurred the Mounties to establish a post here in 1902 -- the post at Wood Mountain was just too far away for adequate patrolling of the valley.

Joseph "Jasper" Huntley was living on the Burgess land in 1901 when the Mounties asked if they might set up camp there until the new post was constructed. Burgess, whose family didn't move to Saskatchewan until the 1930s, says that must have been an amusing situation.

"Jasper, he kind of operated on both sides of the law," says Burgess, a fan of valley lore as well as a cowboy poet. "If there was a Mountie patrol nearby, he'd tip over the rain barrel to signal (his outlaw pals)."

The harsh geography of the Big Muddy made the Mounties task of patrolling the area very difficult, even with the new post nearby. But one Mountie quickly gained the outlaws' respect.

"Corporal Arthur Colin Lewis Bird," says Burgess, taking obvious pleasure articulating the name, "'the man who never sleeps'. He'd show up at the strangest hours, here and there."

But the outlaws weren't easily thwarted. They were resourceful and they plied their trade with energy and audacity. A common rustling job, for example, involved a gang of thieves stealing horses from Montana and selling the much-in-demand creatures to Canadian homesteaders on the northern side of the line.

They'd then steal Canadian horses -- usually, but not always from ranchers and farmers living outside of the Big Muddy area - and sell them in Montana, where they'd steal still more horses to sell to the Canadian homesteaders recently relieved of their stock. Sometimes, the outlaws would sell stolen horses to a rancher and steal them back a few days later.

Guide Tillie Duncan
Guide Tillie Duncan

"Changing brands was very easy," says Tillie Duncan, a Big Muddy guide with Coronach & District Tours. "They had what's called a 'running iron' that allowed them to change a line here or there."

And with the nearest brand office located in Glasgow, Montana, "trying to trace a brand would be quite difficult, by the time you travelled 100 miles by horseback."

Would people buying horses be suspicious about how they were obtained?

"They'd have bills of sale," explains Moose Jaw author Marjorie Mason. "A third party who had a bill of sale was usually safe (from prosecution)."

However, Mason, whose book 100 Years of Grasslands includes history and tales from the badlands, notes a bill of sale didn't save outlaw Ed Shufelt from going to prison for a horse-stealing scheme. It was Shufelt's trial and conviction, in fact, that marked the beginning of the end of the Big Muddy rustling gangs.

Like most tales out of the Big Muddy, accounts differ on precisely how Shufelt ended up in a Regina courtroom in 1905. What's clear is that he did, and that he was no angel before he got there.

In 1901, Shufelt and a friend named Andrew Duffy bought a saloon in Saco, Montana, using money raised from horse and cattle rustling. Shufelt a year later was charged with murder after winging outlaw 'Long Henry' Thompson and then pumping four bullets into his back as he lay wounded on the floor of Shufelt's saloon. Shufelt went through all his savings buying off the jury.

Shufelt was a friend and accomplice of 'Dutch' Henry, a well-connected outlaw and expert wrangler who fought Indians with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson at The Battle of Adobe Walls. Henry left Texas in 1888 to work as a cowpuncher in Big Muddy country. By the turn of the century he was employed by respected Willow Bunch rancher Pascal Bonneau, who operated one of the two biggest ranching outfits in the region.

A prairie fire in 1902 forced Bonneau to winter horses in Montana. Henry and another cowboy looked after the herd over the winter and Bonneau came to retrieve it in spring.

"But when Pascal got on his horse to leave, Dutch Henry put a gun in his back and told him to get going without the horses," says Mason. "Pascal had no choice but to go home without them."

Henry sold the horses to Shufelt and provided the latter with a bill of sale.

Some ranchers, fearing retribution, might have accepted the theft as a business loss and quietly soldiered on. But "Pascal wasn't easily discouraged", says Mason. When Shufelt next showed up in the Willow Bunch area, the Mounties were waiting for him.

According to Barbara Hegne, Oregon author of Border Outlaws of Montana, North Dakota and Canada, the Regina courtroom where Shufelt was tried was quite a sight to behold.

"Many of (Shufelt's) renegade cowpunchers filled the seats of the courtroom," she wrote. "They were a mixture of tobacco chewing misfits." The outlaws tried to employ their usual tricks: the judge had to dismiss the first jury and order a new trial, and witnesses were threatened with injury and death. But Shufelt was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. He died before completing his sentence.

Castle Butte, symbol of the Big Muddy
Castle Butte, symbol of the Big Muddy

By 1906, outlaw reign over the Big Muddy was coming to an end. The North-West Mounted Police had increased the size of its Big Muddy detachment to six men from two, and law and order was descending over the valley. But there would be one more rash of lawlessness when Prohibition came into effect in the United States.

Outlaws, this time rum runners, used the canyons, gulches and buttes of the Big Muddy to avoid detection while smuggling booze into a parched America during the 1920s. They even used pack horses on the rough and remote trails.

The end of Prohibition in the U.S. marked the end of outlaw days in the Big Muddy Badlands. No more cattle rustling, no more horse thieving and no more rum running. Nothing of any consequence, any way. At least, as Michael Burgess puts it in his poem, that's what they say.

For more about The Big Muddy, see Badlands.

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