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Tom Horn

Steve McQueen stars as real-life cowboy Tom Horn in this gripping Western adventure. An experienced and well-known scout and tracker, he's hired by a rancher to take down a group of cattle rustlers. But the middle-aged Horn soon realizes that the skills he's acquired and methods he's become accustomed to are becoming less and less useful in the changing face of the early-20th-century West.

On the western frontier where Tom Horn's gun was for hire, he gave his cattle baron employers full measure of what they paid for and took their deadly secrets with him into eternity. As his adoring young schoolteacher, Glendolene Myrtle Kimmel, described him, "He was a man who embodied the characteristics, the experiences and code of the old frontiersmen."

The extent of Horn's experiences in the Wild West were extraordinary: stagecoach rider, cowboy, Indian scout, and interpreter, the man who captured the Apache chief Nana and persuaded Geronimo to surrender; rodeo champion, skilled marksman - and hired killer, "my stock in trade," as he would boast.

When he died on the gallows in Cheyenne on a November morning in 1903, the city was under martial law after rumors had been printed Horn's "cowboy friends" would storm the jail and release him. Such a thing was not a Wild West fantasy; not many years before Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch riders had been prepared to free his fellow outlaw Matt Warner from a Utah jail until Warner's wife begged him not to do it.

The West held its breath until the trap was sprung to let Horn's big body dangle at the end of the hangman's rope. Horn had been hired by prominent men in the cattle industry and the prosecutor had indicated his death sentence might be commuted to life imprisonment if he talked. Horn scorned the offer. He was a cool calculating killer but, as his adoring Miss Kimmel had said, he never broke the code; to betray an employer or a friend was unthinkable.

Horn was born near Memphis, Scotland County, Missouri, November 21, 1860. His father was a prosperous farmer, his mother, as he recalled her, "was a powerful woman ... a good old fashioned Campbellite." He was fourteen when he left home after a "disagreement" with his father. He first worked on the railroad in Kansas, then joined a team of freighters to get to Santa Fe. His next job was driving a stage for the Overland Mail from Santa Fe to Prescott, Arizona.'

His first contact with the Apache was near Camp Verde where he worked as a night herder. When he left a year later he could speak fluent Spanish and Apache. At sixteen he was employed by the quartermaster's department to herd horses for the army posts. At Fort Whipple he met Al Sieber, the famous Indian scout, and joined him as Mexican interpreter at San Carlos for $75 a month. Horn always said his years on the large Apache reservation were the happiest of his life.

It was a nomadic life: hunting with the bucks, living in the village of Pedro, the old war captain of Victorio, the famous Apache chief, and letting the squaws "throw a stick." (Apache women threw a stick at a man to show she was ready for courtship.)

He also met Mickey Free, the celebrated one-eyed Apache-Mexican scout, who became his close friend. In 1876 at Pedro's request, Sieber appointed Horn as a liaison scout between the Apache and the army at San Carlos and Fort Apache. When the Indian Bureau scandal shook Washington, all civilians were banned from the Indian agencies, and the army scouts lost their jobs. According to Horn's autobiography, he and Sieber joined Ed Scheflin and watched the birth of Tombstone. While Sieber worked a claim they had staked out, Horn supplied the camps with venison at $2.80 a deer. In October they were recalled to Fort Whipple to join the Sixth Cavalry as scouts. After he and Sieber helped to bring in Geronimo for the first time, they were again fired in the spring of 1877 when federal appropriations ran out.

For a year Horn worked for Tuly, Oches & Co. in Tucson, supplying beef for the Apache at San Carlos. Once again civilians were issuing the rations and corruption was rampant. As Horn recalled, one agent when arrested could not account for $54,000 in food and clothing he had received between six and eight months at San Carlos. In May 1880, the Chiricahua Apache broke out, killing the agent, his native policeman, and cutting down the telegraph poles. To alert the army, Horn made the thirty-two-mile ride to Fort Thomas, swimming his horse across the swollen Gila.

The Apache war had begun. Horn first served under Colonel Forsyth, hero of Beecher's Island battle, then as a scout when Captain Adam R. Chaffee's troopers of the Third and Sixth Cavalry met the Apache at Chevelon's Fork on the Little Colorado River. Chaffee was well known on the frontier for the order he had given during the peak of the Kiowa-Comanche war in the 1870s: "Forward! If any man is killed, I'll make him a corporal!" After conferring with Sieber, Chaffee sent two detachments east and west into Devil's Canyon to outflank the hostiles. It was a deep gorge, with steep walls that Horn and the troopers finally scaled, as he later said, "by our fingernails."

A heavy fire fight finally ended in a fierce rain and hailstorm that Horn called the worst he had ever seen in the West. The Apache had lost a number of warriors and withdrew to be pursued by Chaffee until they agreed to return to the agency.

In the summer of 1886 after a tiswin (corn beer) spree, Geronimo led a large number of warriors into Mexico. General George Crook ordered Captain Emmett Crawford, one of the finest young officers in the Indian Fighting Army, to track down the wily chief; Horn, as chief scout, accompanied the expedition.

Under a new treaty allowing American troops to move into Mexico to seek out runaway Apache bands, the tiny army crossed the border and continued on into the Sierra Madre. On the Aros River, Horn and his scouts found the Apache chief's camp. While they engaged the hostiles, they were attacked by Mexican irregulars and Crawford was killed.

For many years, especially after Horn had been executed, the army refused to credit him for the part he had played during the Apache campaign. Apparently the generals had no desire to share credit with civilians.

Even after Horn's autobiography - finished a short time before he died on the gallows - was published, young officers contemptuously dismissed him as a braggart. However, veterans of the campaign remembered the tall, courageous young scout who spoke Spanish and Apache and had an uncanny ability to persuade Geronimo, Natches, and the other chiefs to listen to the army's proposals.

In the section of his autobiography that describes the Apache wars, Horn does not brag; his accounts are simple and vividly written. His bravery, courage, and dedication to the army are a bewildering contrast to his later role as a killer for hire. In April 1886, General Nelson A. Miles replaced Crook, and the Apache war continued with Geronimo still on the loose, his warriors killing ranchers and Mexicans, kidnapping children, butchering cattle, and stealing horses.

Miles, who had dismissed all scouts including Tom and Al Sieber, ordered a selected group of troopers under Captain Leonard Wood, later colonel of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, then chief of staff, and H.L. Lawton to hunt down the Apache and bring them back to San Carlos. It was the old game of hare and hounds with the weary troopers returning empty-handed to the forts while Geronimo's warriors plundered at will as deep as central Arizona. Miles realized he needed experienced scouts and asked Sieber and Horn to return. Sieber, crippled with rheumatism, refused, but Horn left his mine and returned to the army.

This time Lawton's men, guided by Horn, kept up a relentless pace, pressing the Indians deeper and deeper into the mountains so they could not stop to raid and steal fresh horses. At last Geronimo asked for a council. Miles always insisted Geronimo surrendered to Lawton; Horn claims he persuaded the chief to talk to the army captain.

After the council with Miles, Geronimo's warriors stacked their arms and were loaded into boxcars to be imprisoned in Florida. It wouldn't be until 1908 when the remnants of the band were finally allowed to return to their beloved deserts and mountains. The Apache war was over, there was no more need for scouts. Horn left San Carlos and returned to mining. In April 1887, he "joined some of the boys" in Arizona's Pleasant Valley "war" between cattlemen and rustling gangs. Later he became a Pinkerton detective and captured the notorious train robbers "Peg Leg" Watson and Joe McCoy. In his autobiography Horn described how he trailed the outlaws to their hideout.

While Pinkerton's is one of the greatest institutions of the kind in existence, I never did like the work, so I left them in 1894. I then came to Wyoming and went to work for the Swan Land and Cattle Company. What turned Tom Horn from a loyal, zealous army scout, soldier, hard-working miner, cowboy, and tenacious detective into a cold-blooded killer for hire? The answer can be found in the man and his time. For years he had been hired by his country to hunt down and kill, if necessary, the Apache raiders.

The Apache, swift, silent, and ruthless, were the feared minority of the southwestern frontier. Horn grew up with the army's philosophy that good Indians were dead Indians and they had no right to the land sought by the white man. After the Apache wars were over it was easy for Horn once again to join the major force, this time the powerful cattle barons, and wage war on another weak group of the frontier, the small rancher and sheepherder. He had a great deal of personal vanity and was proud of his skill with a gun and the fear he inspired. "I'm an exterminatin' son-of-a-bitch," he once said proudly.

Horn became a hired gun for the large cattle owners some time after he had taken part in the Pleasant Valley range war. It was a period following Wyoming's Johnson County "invasion" when the barons, tired of seeing rustlers freed by sympathetic juries, turned to murder to protect their beef.

Horn was only one of a dozen stock detectives ranging the Wyoming territory; the others brought their defendants in to face the law but Tom left his victims on their land, on their doorsteps, or in their beds. The big solitary man on horseback outlined against the sky or squatting over a lonely campfire became well known and feared. He was usually paid $300 to $600 a man and he satisifed his employers.

Rustlers, in the eyes of the cattle barons, did not always mean cow thieves; some were homesteaders who refused to leave the free range, had staked out water as part of their claim, and were stubbornly willing to fight it out. Horn stalked them like the Apache he knew so well. One morning there would be a solitary shot and his victim's body would be found by his children, wife, or friends. Some frontier historians have Horn placing a small stone under the dead man's head as his trademark, but this appears to me to be a legend.

Horn worked for some of the wealthiest and most powerful cattlemen in Wyoming. Ostensibly, his job was breaking broncs and he would roam the countryside prowling the valleys and isolated canyons, searching for signs a rustler had used a running iron to change a brand.

While killing unarmed men and scaring others was lucrative, Horn yearned for the days of the Apache War when his enemies were as skilled as he was in tracking and killing. He also realized he was becoming a drifter on the high plains, moving from spread to spread, from one lonely campfire to another, with only transient friends and saloon admirers who crowded around him to hear his boasting tales and accept his drinks.

When the Spanish-American War broke out a restless Tom Horn was among the first to enlist. The army was almost a second home, he liked the officers, and men like Leonard Wood and Marshal Bucky O'Neill of Yavapai County, Arizona, whom he had served as a deputy, were joining an outfit called the Rough Riders; their leader was Teddy Roosevelt, who had once been a cowboy.

Horn joined a large packtrain being organized in Saint Louis. By the time the train reached Florida on the way to Cuba, he had been promoted to packmaster. The war was brief, Teddy Roosevelt stormed San Juan Hill to land in the White House, and Horn came down with fever without seeing any action. Weak and still shaking from malaria, he arrived in New York to be discharged from the army as chief packer at $133 a month. He recuperated in the West, then returned to his old profession - a gun for hire.

In Brown's Hole, once Butch Cassidy's headquarters, Horn killed "Nigger Isam" Dart and Matt Rash, two suspected rustlers. He first tacked a note on Rash's door warning him to leave but Rash shrugged off the threat. One July morning in 1900, Horn killed Rash as he was eating. In October he shot Dart as the black cowboy-rustler left his cabin in Brown's Hole. Jay Monaghan, Horn's biographer, quoted one coroner's juryman as saying he later found the spot where Horn had knelt and paced the distance to Dart's body; it was a hundred and ninety-six paces. Tom Horn hung up his rifle that winter but the cattle barons were satisfied. Running irons no longer glowed red in the campfires of the rustlers, and mavericks roamed free without being lassoed by the longest rope ...

In the spring of 1901, Horn joined his old friend John Coble at the Coble ranch north of Laramie, Wyoming. Coble, son of a wealthy Pennsylvania family, had gone west rather than accept an appointment at the United States Naval Academy. He had established the Fontier Land & Cattle Company with Sir Horace Plunkett, a young Irish nobleman, only to be wiped out in the bitter winter of 1886-1887. Sir Horace returned to Ireland and a brilliant political career and Coble moved to Iron Mountain, Wyoming, where he established a horse ranch.

Coble first met Horn as a stock detective and they became friends. Coble, a romantic, undoubtedly viewed the killer as a living link to the fading frontier. Horn played the role, entertaining Coble and his guests at the Cheyenne Club with tales of the days when he rode with the herds going up the Chisholm Trail and stalked the Apache with A1 Sieber.

To repay Coble's kindness, Horn began to search out the rustlers who were preying on the Iron Mountain herds. In this way he first met the Millers, a homesteading family, and the strange little schoolteacher who boarded with them. Glendolene Myrtle Kimmell, a round-faced girl who some thought looked Oriental, had left a small town in Missouri not only to teach at the Iron Mountain School but also to satisfy a deep desire to see the Wild West with its gallant frontiersmen about whom she had read so much. The taciturn, stodgy Miller boys who only rode farm plugs had been a disappointment but Tom Horn fulfilled her dreams. As she later wrote, he was the true embodiment of the romantic man of the West, tall, lean, hawk-eyed with an air of danger about him.

She was good for Horn's ego and he basked in her admiration. While casually paying her attention, Horn also learned of the feud between the Millers and their neighbor, Kels P. Nickell. Miller and Nickell had been in and out of court and once Nickell had tried to slash Coble with a knife.

When Nickell brought in sheep, the cattle country rose against him, but the fiercely stubborn Kentuckian defied his neighbors and stood guard over his flock with a shotgun. On the morning of July 18, fourteen-year-old Willie Nickell went out to saddle up and stay overnight with his father at the sheep camp. His mother waved good-bye and went back into the house. Shortly after two shots rang out; apparently Mrs. Nickell did not hear them and remained in the house.

In the morning the two smaller Nickell boys found the body of their brother at the corral gate. Apparently he had been knocked from his saddle with one shot, then as he weakly tried to run toward the house he was shot a second time. The killer in stocking feet examined the body, then walked back to his hideout behind some rocks and rode away.

Some settlers who knew of Horn's reputation named him as the killer but he produced an alibi proving he was on a train between Laramie and Cheyenne on the day Willie was killed. Victor Miller was also a suspect but Miss Kimmell, the schoolteacher, testified at a coroner's jury he was at home when the shooting took place. The state matched the county's reward offer of $500 and reward posters appeared on fence posts and telegraph poles.

A few days later Willie's father was shot from ambush, the bullets shattering his arm; as he lay in the hospital he heard that masked men had clubbed some of his sheep to death. The cattle barons won their long fight against the erratic Nickell; he sadly sold his spread and moved to Cheyenne where he opened a steam laundry.

The sensational case gradually died away but Joe LeFors, the United States marshal in Cheyenne, doggedly continued to investigate the boy's murder. After he had interviewed the Millers, Miss Kimmell wrote a long letter to Horn - then on a spree in Denver - warning LeFors was asking questions about him. Horn ignored the letter and continued to make his nightly tour of the saloons.

Horn who had not been in Denver for years now discovered the city was no longer a large cow camp where the cowboy with money was king. The night was lighted with electric signs, the wooden sidewalks were gone along with the old-fashioned stores and their false fronts. To the adoring Miss Kimmell, Tom Horn, in his high-heeled boots and sombrero, was a living legend; to Denver he was a living anachronism.

He was a powerful man, almost seven feet tall, straight as an arrow shaft, with broad shoulders and a slim waist. As many remembered, when Horn was sober he was a delightful companion who held the attention of a crowd with an endless storehouse of anecdotes and stories about the frontier. But drunk he was violent and unpredictable. For many Horn was a link to the frontier that was fast becoming a romantic memory; when he entered a saloon he was quickly joined by admirers who were always ready to buy him a drink.

LeFors was in Laramie, gathering information that on the day of the Nickell murder Horn had arrived in Laramie "on a steamy shaken horse" that obviously had been ridden hard and that Horn had left a bloodstained sweater at a cobbler's shop. The marshal set a trap for Horn. On the pretext that a rancher-friend in Montana wanted a good stockman's detective, he got Tom in a boasting mood. Between chews of tobacco, the cattleman's hired killer told how he had been paid "twenty-one hundred dollars for killing three men and shooting five times at another." He also calmly told LeFors how he shot the Nickell boy at three hundred yards and called it "the dirtiest trick I have ever done ... killing is my specialty ... I look on it as a business ..."

Behind the door of LeFors's office were Deputy Sheriff Leslie Snow and Charles Ohnhatus, the district court stenographer who took down in shorthand everything Horn told LeFors. After Horn left, LeFors swore out a warrant for murder and Horn was arrested in the lobby of the Inter-Ocean Hotel.

Horn's trial in the fall of 1902 was one of the most sensational of its time. The West knew the big killer was not as important as the unspoken issue: wealthy, influential cattle barons against small, most times penniless homesteaders. It was the old century colliding with the new.

The cattle barons gave Horn the best counsel money could hire: John W. Lacey, general counsel for the Union Pacific and onetime Wyoming chief justice. The trial was held on the second floor of Cheyenne's old courthouse; every day the courtroom was jammed. Cattlemen and homesteaders came on horseback, in fringed carriages, and wagons loaded down with children, some who would boast years later to their grandchildren how they had seen Tom Horn, the range killer, during the days he had fought for his life in the small dusty courtroom. There were big city reporters from the East strutting about in derbies and celluloid collars; cowboys in tight Sunday suits and ties with tiny, greasy knots; self-conscious "witnesses" in their best suits; and farmers with mud-splattered boots and collarless shirts.

The highlight of the trial was the testimony of Joe LeFors and Tom Horn. The marshal detailed how he had set the trap for Horn, then read his "confession"; Horn denied he killed the boy and insisted LeFors had doctored the shorthand notes in his quest for the $1,000 reward.

On the morning of October 23, 1902, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and Horn was sentenced to be hanged. He was returned to his cell while appeals took place. The Territory waited: Would Tom Horn betray his wealthy accomplices to save his life?

A plot to blow up the jail by Horn's cowboy friends was uncovered in December. In the saloons the story was repeated that Butch Cassidy was gathering his Wild Bunch riders to help in Tom Horn's escape. At the time Cassidy was in South America and most of his riders were dead or in jail. Five sticks of dynamite were found in the snow outside the wall of the jail and guards found a length of lead pipe hidden in the range killer's pants leg. The winter passed, then in August as the city prepared for its annual Frontier Days, Horn made a desperate attempt to escape. His partner was Jim McCloud (also spelled Macleod), waiting trial for robbery.

Horn's attorneys fought to the last hour to save him. The grief-stricken Miss Kimmell, who had gone back to Missouri, gave a last-minute affidavit in which she claimed she had overheard "on three different occasions" two men talk of how they had shot the boy. The attorneys appeared before Governor Chatterton but after a hearing he ruled that the schoolteacher "was not telling the truth but seeking to shield Horn" and refused to postpone the execution.

He also revealed there was "a plan by which the train which took Horn to the penitentiary was to be wrecked and the prisoner freed. But that was contingent upon his securing a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment. But I have given the matter the last consideration and the execution will take place on Friday without fail ..."

On the morning of November 20, 1903, Horn, still "game," went to his death, scorning requests that he turn informer and name the wealthy cattle barons who paid him to murder the defenseless ranchers and rustlers. Horn's body was cut down and taken to the local undertaker. Kels Nickell met the corpse at the mortuary and pulled back the rubber poncho. He glanced at the dark blue face, nodded as if satisfied, then turned away.

John Coble paid for an elaborate coffin. Charles Horn accompanied the body of his brother to Boulder, Colorado, where more than two thousand followed the cortege to the cemetery. The family kept a guard at the grave for some time to prevent ghouls "from digging up the corpse and selling it to showmen to put on exhibit."

In Cheyenne the story was circulated that Tom Horn was never executed but had been freed by the power of the cattle barons. Soon men were swearing they had seen outlined against the sky the arrow-straight figure headed for some lonely valley to ambush a troublesome nester or a rustler who had changed too many brands ...

James D. Horan. The Authentic Wild West: The Gunfighters . Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. Copywright 1976.


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