This post is a part of our series on Tom Horn – full collection of links at the bottom of the page.
“…I stopped cow stealing there in one summer.”
— Tom Horn
Where was Tom Horn, and where did he go after Willie’s murder? How did he get into the worst trouble he had ever known?
He had departed Miller’s ranch mid-morning July 17, the day before Willie Nickell was killed. He headed southeast along Spring Creek and a canyon, through which it feeds, and then north to the Two Bar’s Colcord pasture, roughly a half-mile east of Nickell’s homestead.
Miller’s ranch, a mile south-southwest of Nickell’s, slopes toward the east and south. It straddles Spring Creek and Sawmill Creek, which flow southeast. Nickell’s homestead lay on North Chugwater Creek, a small tributary of Chugwater Creek. Spring Creek runs east and slightly north toward the town of Chugwater, and runs both above ground and below the surface. Most of the terrain on Nickell’s homestead slopes toward the east.
Horn’s work necessitated secrecy, so that rustling could be more easily detected. Consequently only two witnesses were able to confirm where they had seen him after he left Miller’s. They were John Braae and Otto Plaga.
After inspecting the Colcord pasture he moved through the hills toward Mule Creek to the north, and in the direction of the headwaters of the Sybille, i.e., toward the northwest. Mule Creek flows east and then north into the Sybille, north of William Clay’s home.
He worked as usual in a random pattern, not following any predetermined plan or map. Wednesday evening he was farther downstream (north) on Mule Creek, heading away from Clay’s, farther yet from Nickell’s and toward the ridge from which he saw John Braae — six or more miles from Nickell’s. Although he thought Braae had not seen him, John testified later that he’d seen Horn off his horse on top of a ridge to the northwest, studying something through his field glasses north of where he stood.
Under the cover of darkness — the moon was between the new and first quarter, and it may have been cloudy ?? he rode west, camping out between Allen’s and Waechter’s ranches. The next morning, Thursday, he patrolled Mike Fitzmorris’ pastures, and then worked his way north toward Blue Grass Springs. He gradually worked back toward Fitzmorris’ place on his way to Coble’s headquarters north of Bosler junction.
Horn stated that he might have been within eight or nine miles of Nickell’s the morning of the crime, but qualified that by saying that when he spoke of distances he was simply making an educated estimate.
Otto Plaga, a young local cowhand, stated that he had seen Horn at a spot that was distant from the gate where Willie. The siting took place only an hour after the killing. According to Plaga Horn was moving slowly, his horse showed no signs of being pushed, and the distance from the gate to where Plaga saw him was too far from the gate for Horn to have covered it at a leisurely pace.
After he finished at Mike Fitzmorris’ Thursday, he headed north four or five miles, and camped. The next morning he cut back and again worked the large Two Bar and Coble pastures adjacent to Fitzmorris’ until mid?afternoon, and then camped overnight. Early Saturday, July 20, he started down to Coble’s, west-northwest of the area he had been patrolling.
He arrived at Coble’s in mid?morning, a fact that was attested to by a cowboy, W. S. Carpenter, who working in the stable, and by Mr. and Mrs. John Ryan. The Ryans had been hired by Coble and Duncan Clark, Coble’s foreman, to keep house ?? general duties involving cooking, cleaning and laundering for the crew.
Horn cleaned up, changed his clothes, read his mail, and made a phone call to the Bosler station to send a telegram to Laramie. He ate, paid Ryan twenty-five cents for the wire, and left his laundry for them to do. He told Ryan he would pay for the laundry when he returned.
At Carpenter’s suggestion, he drove John Coble’s best horse into the corral, and saddled him up. The horse, a bay named Pacer, was branded Lazy TY connected. Horn pushed him hard on the ride into Laramie.
Coble had left on July 11 for his mother’s funeral in Pennsylvania. Although Horn said he had an appointment with Bell in the evening, it could be that Bell, who may have been paymaster, could not meet Tom and had left the money with another party. Horn was dressed in a good quality, brown wool suit.
He deposited the horse and went on a ten?day drinking binge. Frank Stone drank with Tom on Sunday, July 21, and finally picked him up for a ride out of town in a wagon on July 30. It was time to sober up and go back to work. The next day, Stone accompanied him northward to within ten miles of the Iron Mountain Ranch. Mr. and Mrs. Ryan saw him headed back to the ranch from the Bosler depot when they departed for Cheyenne that day.
Tom Horn’s whereabouts from that point until August 7 or 8 are unknown. The prosecution attempted to link him with Kels Nickell’s shooting on August 4, but Horn stated he was “a hundred miles” away on that Sunday morning. He wrote to John Coble that he had been at Alex Sellers’ ranch that day.
Sellers was an Albany County rancher who owned a spread in the northern part of the county in Antelope Basin. There is, however, no part of northern Albany County more than one hundred miles from Nickell’s ranch, so Sellers’ ranch in fact could not have been that distance from the Nickell place. Horn, again, was speaking figuratively. (Sellers was never called to verify the statement during the trial, apparently because the defense team could not locate him.)
Horn had been at Coble’s ranch for a few days when he was summoned to testify at the inquest.
Around this time the chairman of the Laramie County Commission, Sam Corson, had arranged for a deputy U.S. marshal, Joe LeFors, to investigate the Nickell murder. The county and state had each already offered a five hundred dollar reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Willie’s murder.
LeFors was born in Paris, Texas, on February 20, 1865. He arrived in Wyoming as part of a cattle drive in 1885, and went to work as a cowpuncher outside Buffalo.
LeFors was a minor player in the successful effort in 1887 to recover a large herd of stolen stock from the Hole-in-the-Wall area, where rustlers generally felt themselves unassailable by the law. He was later hired as a contract livestock inspector for Montana in northeast Wyoming, working in and around Newcastle to apprehend stolen cattle and thieves, and return them to Montana. He became acquainted with W. D. “Billy” Smith, a Montana brand inspector who was based in Miles City, just north of Newcastle. Smith probably was LeFors’ immediate superior.
LeFors married his first wife, sixteen-year-old Bessie M. Hannum in Newcastle, Wyoming on August 5, 1896. He played a minor role in the posse that pursued the three robbers of the Union Pacific at Wilcox in 1899. The robbers eventually escaped into the Big Horn Mountains, and at least one reached southwest Wyoming, probably headed for Brown’s Hole.
U.S. Marshal Frank A. Hadsell had appointed LeFors an office deputy on October 16, 1899. LeFors’ contention was that Hadsell had approached him to join his staff because of his work on the Wilcox posse.
Robbers again held up the Union Pacific on August 29, 1900 near Tipton, fifty miles west of Rawlins. LeFors participated in the posse that pursued the robbers to the Brown’s Hole area south of Tipton, with a similar lack of success.
After his testimony on August 9, Tom Horn appeared at the rodeo during the frontier celebration in Cheyenne. According to the Laramie Daily Boomerang he won the multi-day steer roping competition at least once. His associates, Duncan Clark, Frank Stone and Otto Plaga, also were rodeo event winners.
Horn stated that he talked with Joe LeFors twice about the Willie Nickell killing at one or more Cheyenne saloons during the fest.
In September took a load of horses by train to the Mountains and Plains Festival, arriving early Sunday morning, September 29.
He went on yet another drinking spree, and tangled in a saloon with Denver’s popular boxer “Young” Corbett, who broke Horn’s left jaw. A Denver police surgeon treated Tom, binding up his head with plaster of Paris at five thirty Monday morning. He was in St. Luke’s Hospital for three weeks. In trial testimony, he said, “I got into trouble because a man called me a liar.”
Horn spent the next few months at Coble’s ranch in Bosler, and in Cheyenne and Laramie. Late in December he took a load of beef to Omaha on the Union Pacific. Glendolene Kimmell spoke of his getting drunk in Omaha and losing his “outfit” there, and then returning to Cheyenne. He met with LeFors while in Cheyenne, where they again discussed the Nickell murder.
LeFors had John Coble take Horn a letter about a stock detective’s job in Montana that he had received from W. D. “Billy” Smith, Joe’s old acquaintance.
Miles City, Montana
Dec. 28th 1901
Joe LeFors Esq.
I want a good man to do some secret work. And want a man that I can trust. And he will have to be a man not known in this country. The nature of this, there is a gang over on the Big Moon River that are stealing cattle and we purpose [propose] to fit the man out as a wolfer and let him go into that country (and wolf).
And if he is the right kind of man he can soon get in with the gang. He will have to be a man that can take care of himself in any kind of country.
The pay will be $125.00 per month and I believe a man can make good wages besides.
Joe if you know of anyone who you think will fill the place let me know. There will be several months work.
W. D. Smith
P.S. Man will have to report in Helena.
Horn immediately responded.
Iron Mountain Ranch Company
Jan. 1st 1902
Joe LeFors Esq.
Recd yours from W. D. Smith Miles City Mont. by Johnny Coble today. I would like to take up that work and I feel sure I can give Mr. Smith satisfaction. I don’t care how big or bad his men are or how many of them there are, I can handle them. They can scarcely be any worse than the Brown’s Hole Gang and I stopped cow stealing there in one summer. If Mr. Smith cares to give me the work I would like to meet them as soon as commencement so as to get into the country and get located before Summer.
The wages $125.00 per month will be all satisfactory to me. Put me in communication with Mr. Smith whom I know well by reputation and I can guarantee him the recommendation of every cow man in the State of Wyoming in this line of work.
You may write Mr. Smith for me that I can handle his work and do it with less expense in the shape of lawyer and witness fees than any man in the business.
Joe you yourself know what my reputation is although we have never been out together.
From that point Joe LeFors lead Tom Horn through a conversation that would lead to his controversial trial and conviction.
This essay was originally published on Chip Carlson’s personal website, which has since expired, and is re-published here as a way to preserve some of the content of this historical figure. If you would like to continue learning about Tom Horn, please explore the links below. If you’d like to read the complete story, and help to support the author, his book can be purchased here.
More about Tom Horn:
Tom Horn (main page)
The Tom Horn Story (summary)