Brent Towns (who also writes as B. S. Dunn, Jake Henry, and Sam Clancy) tells me a favourite of his own novels is his first Black Horse Western FURY AT BENT FORK – credited to B.S. Dunn - ‘because I felt a great sense of achievement.’ (Something I’m sure all us published novelists feel about their debut novel.)
Four big ranchers, known as the Committee, seek to dominate their section of Colorado. They hire a pack of gunmen under Slade Johnson, but smaller ranchers resist – led by young Chad Hunter. Chad’s also being pursued by a cold-blooded murderer just escaped from prison.
‘It became known as the Stone Creek Valley War and for a time, the valley ran red with the blood of innocents and killers alike.’
Probably the two most famous of these Range Wars were the ‘Lincoln County War’ and the ‘Johnson County War.’ I’ll blog about the latter another day.
Actually the Lincoln County War in New Mexico of the late 1870s saw small ranchers such as JOHN TUNSTALL, an Englishman originally from London,
aligned with cattle baron JOHN CHISUM
and local lawyer ALEXANDER McSWEEN.
Their main beef (pardon the pun) was against two businessmen running a powerful conglomerate based in the town of Lincoln. This pair of Irishmen – J. J. DOLAN and JOHN RILEY – owned a big general store called ‘The House.’ They also controlled most government contracts for supplying beef to army posts and Indian reservations. On top of that they had the law, fronted by Lincoln County Sheriff WILLIAM BRADY, in their pocket.
William Brady in 1872
The other faction didn’t see why Dolan and Riley should have a monopoly on either trade in Lincoln or beef contracts.
Tension between the two sides exploded into violence in February 1878. Brady sent a posse to seize some of Tunstall’s horses as payment for an outstanding debt. They encountered Tunstall out on the range. When Tunstall refused to hand the horses over, Deputy Sheriff WILLIAM MORTON shot him in the head.
Men in the employ of Tunstall and Chisum formed a posse of their own – nicknamed The Regulators – and set out to get their revenge. Which is when The Lincoln County War enters the realms of legend: one of these ‘Regulators’ was a slight young man – probably in his early 20s - called HENRY ANTRIM or HENRY McCARTY. It’s wrongly claimed he was born William Bonney, but history remembers him as BILLY THE KID.
To briefly summarise the violence that ensued: The Regulators captured Morton and another of his posse and shot them. In an even more audacious move they ambushed Sheriff Brady as he walked the streets of Lincoln. Brady and another deputy were felled by a hail of bullets from cover.
Events culminated in a 5-day siege (the so-called ‘Battle of Lincoln’) in July 1878. The Regulators were cornered in McSween’s home in Lincoln by supporters of ‘The House.’ Despite desultory exchanges of gunfire there were no casualties until the fifth day, when McSween’s house was fired. The besieged fled the burning building, braving a blizzard of gunfire that cut down McSween. In total perhaps seven men (two of the ‘House’ faction, and five Regulators) were killed. The remaining Regulators scattered.
The Lincoln County Cattle War was over and ‘Billy the Kid’s’ side had convincingly lost.
Legend attributes the prominent role in these actions to Billy and claims he did most of the killing. In reality he was only one of a number of participants. He only seems to have taken over as leader during the ‘Battle of Lincoln.’
Most fictional depictions of the Lincoln County War show teenage Billy as looking up to Tunstall as a wise elder, a kindly uncle if not father figure. As it happens Tunstall at the time of his death was 24, possibly only two years older than Billy.
The FURY AT BENT FORK scenario of small ranchers/homesteaders versus big ranchers naturally brings to mind SHANE.
Alan Ladd in ‘Shane’ (1953)
The hero being unjustly convicted of cattle rustling, when his real crime was standing up to a powerful conglomerate, made me think of BROKEN LANCE.
Richard Widmark, Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner in ‘Broken Lance’ (1954)
Reviewer for FURY AT BENT FORK: ‘Wow! Great book.’