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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Western · #2150527
Historical fiction based on the lynching of Ellen Watson and Jim Averell in Wyoming 1889.

High Stakes on the Sweetwater River Mark Adcock


High Stakes on the Sweetwater River

...they hung from the branch of a stunted pine at the head of a rock-strewn canyon, their lifeless feet only inches from the ground. Ellen's feet were bare, her moccasins lay on the ground nearby, a testament to her death struggle. Her arm brushed against Jim's as they gently swayed in the breeze, together in death as they were in life...

Bill Harley shivered, remembering as he leaned back in his chair and glanced once more at the stairs leading up to the guest rooms. He scratched his beard and looked around the empty but clean saloon. The early morning Wyoming sunlight cast the shadow of the swing doors across the bare wood floor. A clink of glass brought his attention back to the bar where the barkeep, in rolled-up sleeves, wiped the counter and stowed away clean glasses.

This was his fourth visit to Rawlins in the two years since they settled on the Sweetwater, sixty miles north. He had made the long, horseback journey the day before just to give the Sheriff his testimony of events that led to the lynching of his friends, Jim Averill and Ella Watson.

He reached for his coffee and then looked around feeling like he was being watched. His wife, Eileen, had twice seen a stranger on horseback lurking near their property. She was frightened and hadn't wanted him to go, but he needed to see this through.

Bill glanced at the stairs when a clean-shaven, young man, bespectacled and dressed in a suit, descended carrying a leather case. They had spoken briefly last night. On hearing why Bill was in town he introduced himself as a reporter and asked to meet in the morning.

He ordered a coffee and then sat opposite Bill.

"Good Morning, Mr. Harley," he said, shaking Bill's hand.

"Monin', Jack. What paper you say you're with?"

"The Bessemer Journal."

"I take it you're new to these parts," Bill said. "The accent, New England?"

His face reddened. "That's right, about a month and I'm new to the Journal." He bent down and removed a pad and pencil stub from his case. "So you were acquainted with Cattle Kate, Mr. Harley."


"It's what Ellen Watson is being called." Jack pulled out a newspaper and slid it across to him: the Cheyenne Daily Leader, dated July 23, 1889. Bill felt a lump in his throat, it was two days old, printed on the day he buried his friends. He scanned the title:

"A Double Lynching
Postmaster Averill and his wife hung for Cattle Stealing.
They were tireless Maverickers who defied the law.
The man weakened, but the woman cursed to the last."*

He looked up at Jack with incredulity. "What is this?"

"Just read the story. I'd like your opinion."

Bill stared a moment at Jack and then read the article. As he read he could feel a vein in his neck pulsing. When finished, he balled his hands into fists, stood up and leaned across the table glaring at Jack.

"Mister, I don't know what you're tryin' to do, but these are lies. Why it makes it out that Jim was a crook and coward and Ella an outlaw and prostitute. I'll bid you 'good day'." He straightened up to leave, grabbing his hat and saddlebag.

The colour drained from Jack's face. "Look, Mr. Harley, I'm just showing you what the other papers are printing."

"That article reads like a dime novel. You're not gonna twist my words."

"I wouldn't do that." Jack stood up. "Look, my boss thinks there's more to this than was printed."

Bill paused, clenched his jaw and then spoke quietly. "What do you mean?"

Jack looked back at the entrance then glanced at the barkeep. He stepped in close to Bill and lowered his voice. "Like I said, I'm new to these parts but I was told the Cattleman's Association controls most things around here," He nodded towards the paper, "including some of the newspapers."

Bill hesitated. He looked towards the swing doors then back at Jack. "Last January our first child was born and then my wife caught a fever. Ella stayed with us for two weeks until she got on her feet. Does that sound like a cattle thieving, drunken whore to you?"

Jack shook his head. "Please, Mr. Harley, sit down and tell me your story, the real story."

Bill sighed, set his saddlebag down and then put his hat back on the table; he sat and leaned forward. "Alright, what do you want to know?"

"Well, start from when you first met them. You knew them. Tell me what they were like."

Bill leaned back in his chair, took out a leather pouch that held his tobacco and pipe and began to pack the bowl. He lit it, puffing, while Jack took up his pencil and waited.

"About two years ago, my wife and I sold up in Kentucky and headed for Oregon. It was a hard journey on both of us. When we arrived at Sweetwater, we pulled in at Jim Averell's roadhouse. It was there we met him and Ella. We spent the evening talkin' to them. They told us about land nearby that was up for homesteading. We wound up doin' just that."

Jack looked up at Bill. "So Jim and Ellen Watson owned a roadhouse."

"No, it was Jim's place. They weren't married. Ella just worked there. She cooked the meals and Jim let her keep all the earnings from it." Bill raised an eyebrow. "Truth is they were real close and rumour had it they were engaged. Before we met them, they lived together so I guess there would be some that would hold that against them."

"So where did Ellen live?"

"Jim homesteaded 160 acres of land between Horse Creek and the Sweetwater. A year before we arrived, Ellen homesteaded the 160-acre parcel next to Jim's along Horse Creek. She built a two-room log cabin and lived there. Between them, they controlled a mile of Horse Creek." Bill removed his pipe and pointed the stem at Jack. "I reckoned that's why they didn't get married."

Jack looked up. "Why's that?"

"A family is only allowed to do one homestead. She had a couple of years left to prove her claim. I reckoned they planned to marry then."

"Makes good business sense."

"Jim and Ellen both had shrewd business heads. They knew what they were doin'. It was legal; they just didn't let their personal niceties get in the way. They sure worked hard and I know Ella saved what she earned." He smiled feeling the stitching on his trouser leg. "She had a sewing machine and regular customers needing clothes mended."

Both Bill and Jack looked up when two cowhands pushed through the swing doors. They removed their hats and nodded as they walked up to the bar where they each ordered a beverage and stood, talking in hushed tones. Bill smiled as he relaxed in the lighter atmosphere.

Jack took a sip of coffee and then rested his chin on his hand. "The people you're describing don't sound like the scoundrels the papers claim they were. Could they have been rustling cattle without you knowing it?"

Bill shook his head and drew on his pipe. "It's open country and I could see Ellen's place from our cabin. Jim never owned any cattle. He kept hogs and Ella only got a few head last year." He chuckled. "Last fall, she came across an immigrant on the Oregon trail, up near Independence Rock, driving twenty-eight head of cattle. They were in bad shape, thin and footsore. She bought them for a Dollar a head. I helped her herd them back to her place."

"Did they survive? I heard last winter was the harshest on record."

Bill nodded. "They survived alright. She took real good care of them. By the time we branded them two weeks ago, there were forty-one."

"Wait," Jack said flipping back through his notes. "These are the cattle she was accused of rustling, right?"

"That's what I heard."

"Why didn't she show them proof of sale?"

"The way I heard it, when they confronted her, she said she could prove it. The bill of sale was at Jim's place. They forced her into the buggy, went around by Jim's place and seized him without even askin' to see the paperwork. It was just an excuse Bothwell used to rile up the other ranchers."

"Bothwell... Al Bothwell? One of the ranchers arrested?"


"I take it there was bad blood between them."

Bill glanced at the saloon entrance when he heard footsteps on the boardwalk, outside, accompanied by raucous laughter. His hands trembled as he removed his pipe, remembering a chilling rumour of what Bothwell had said to the sheriff while being escorted to Rawlins after his arrest:

"...on your way back from Rawlins, check every tree. You're liable to find more cattle rustlers strung up by the neck..."

Bill looked at Jack and swallowed. "You could say that. He's the biggest rancher in our parts. His place is only a mile from mine. He owns thousands of acres and a huge herd; his cattle graze on the open range but the government started to parcel out some of it to homesteaders. Jim, Ella and a few more of us live on land his cattle grazed on. He was always pushin' them to sell but they wouldn't. Heck, he made me an offer for my claim."

The swing doors parted, and a tall man, wearing a dark poncho, strode up to the bar, his spurs clicking. He ordered a whisky and stared at Bill and Jack from under his black hat. Bill's eyes were drawn to his pistol sitting low on his hip just visible in the split of the poncho. A chill ran down Bill's spine, he recognized him. He had seen him before with Bothwell and heard stories...

The cowhands stopped talking and looked from the tall cowboy to Jack and Bill. In an uneasy silence, they left the bar and settled at the table in the furthest corner from them.

Reluctantly, Bill returned his attention to Jack. He cleared his throat, leaned forward and spoke in a quieter tone.

"He started to get real threatening. Jim was the justice of the peace in the area. He heard some of the ranchers were claiming land illegally so he sent a letter to a paper naming Bothwell."

Jack glanced up. "Do you know which paper that was?"

Bill shook his head. "I can't recall. After that, they had a fight and Jim threatened to cut off his access to Horse Creek. I guess that's what finally killed Jim and Ella."

A glass was slapped down on the counter. Startled, they both looked towards the bar as a hush settled in the saloon. Bothwell's man glared and then left, the doors swinging in his wake. Bill watched the saloon entrance, his stomach tightening into a ball. He jumped when Jack spoke.

"Where were you when they were taken, Bill?"

"I was ploughin' up a field when I seen them being hauled away along the Sweetwater, surrounded by a half dozen men. I recognised Bothwell. I started to walk over to Jim's place to find out what was goin' on when I met my neighbour, Frank Buchanon. He told me Bothwell and a few other ranchers had taken them and was afraid they were going to lynch them. I ran back to my place, unhitched my horse and grabbed my rifle. I was late following them and pulled up when I saw Frank riding hard towards me. He told me to return home, he had been in a gunfight and there was nothing I could do. Both Jim and Ella had already been hung."

Bill swallowed, the lump in his throat rising up again. He wiped his eyes and shuddered at the memory.

...their bodies hung from lariats fashioned into nooses. Their slow strangulation evident from their swollen tongues protruding from their mouths. Their bodies were blackened and bloated from swinging in the heat for two days...

"Later, I went along with the posse to retrieve their bodies. We buried them on Jim's land."

For a moment, silence settled between them.

Jack replaced his notepad and pencil in this satchel and then glanced at Bill.

"Last night you said you came into town to give the Sheriff your story. You going there now?"

Bill nodded. "Yup. They were kind-hearted people. Last winter was long and most of us ran out of food. Ella slaughtered two to her herd to help feed us. Jim was the same, they wouldn't see anyone go hungry." Bill shook his head. "What was done was murder and those that did it need to hang for it."

He packed up his pipe, stood, slung his saddlebag over his shoulder and picked up his hat. They shook hands.

"Thanks, Bill. I'll get the truth out there."

Out on the boardwalk, Bill squinted into the sun as he looked down the dusty street towards the corral where he had stabled his horse, the Sheriff's office was on the way. He waited for the stagecoach to pass before he crossed to the other side. Passing an alleyway, a voice called him from the shadows.

He turned to see Bothwell's man leaning against the wall smoking a cheroot, his hand resting on his holstered pistol.

"Yea?" Bill answered, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice.

The man smiled but it didn't touch his cold blue eyes. A shiver ran up Bill's back.

"Mr. Bothwell sends his regards. How's that pretty little wife of yours? Eileen, isn't it? I bet she's sweet, and now you got a little one. You sure wouldn't want anything to happen to them. These can be dangerous parts, just like your neighbours found out."

He straightened up, dipped his hat and turned down the alley. He stopped and looked back.

"By the way, Mr. Bothwell's offer still stands."

He turned and disappeared into the gloom.

Bill's legs felt like jelly. He leaned against the wall, breathed a couple of times then urged himself on, driven by an overwhelming need to get home. Outside the Sheriff's office door, he hesitated, his hand hovering above the door handle.

Eileen, their child in her arms, pleaded with him not to leave them. On the horizon a dark rider loomed, watching...

Bill straightened up, turned away from the sheriff's office and continued to the stables. If they sold now, they could reach Oregon before the mountain passes closed.

*Extract from: The Cheyenne Daily Leader, dated July 23, 1889


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