Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 1: The fastest gun in the west

I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below is one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been rewritten and reissued  in paperback and ebook:                                            
     I didn't believe it was possible that a practicing gunfighter still existed. Then I found Ed Cantrell in Wyoming.                      
There's an aspect of the range that still exercises extraordinary influence on the imagination — six-shooters and those who wield them. Public lands have supported as much lawlessness as any domain in the West, but finding a contemporary gunfighter seemed to me an unlikely prospect in an age of universal jurisprudence. However, midway through the trip, I heard a story about a body found in the desert with its head resting on a red rock. Actually it was more a rumor than a story and involved several bodies instead of one, all rustlers caught too far out in the wilds to be brought to justice. A rock under the head had been the hallmark of a certain nineteenth-century lawman, and supposedly was used by his reincarnation, Ed Cantrell.
I began to hear other rumors about Cantrell: he could ride for days without eating and bring down a horse or a man at a thousand yards with a rifle; some personal misfortune had driven him to the brink of despair; he could quote long passages from Hemingway; he was near-deaf from practicing every day with a revolver; he had the eyes of a rattlesnake, and quicker hands.
I didn't believe them, of course.

East of the Wind River Range the plains break against the mountains in big, rolling swells. To the south lies the Great Divide Basin and a lot of BLM land with a sad, colorful history of creaking prairie schooners, dispersed tribes, and gaunt cowboys pushing famished animals toward what was left of the grasslands. Parts of the old Oregon Trail are still visible in ghostly meanderings across marginal grassland and broad drainages.
To the north of U.S. Highway 20/26 lie the Bighorn Mountains, a maverick thrust of the Rockies and one more tectonic wrinkle in mostly dry, difficult country. The road passes through Shoshoni and along Poison Creek above the Rattlesnake Hills, through Hell's Half Acre and the town of Powder River. From there, headwaters of the river of the same name flow north past the old Hole-in-the-Wall, once the roost of unrepentant badmen, and on up into Montana.
Powder River is little more than a Texaco station and a bunch of pronghorn antelope looking at it. The traveler can buy a few groceries there, as well as gas, and drink a cup of coffee at the table in the corner before continuing on to Casper. The table was occupied when I arrived by three men and two women in Levi's, who regarded me with more skepticism than my out-of-state license plates seemed to warrant. But then rustling is still a recognized vocation in this part of Wyoming, where lack of water means spreads of a hundred square miles and larger, from which livestock is often taken to slaughter in Colorado and Nebraska, against the owners' wishes.
When I mentioned the name Cantrell, the biggest of the men said, "What do you want with Ed?"
"I want to talk to him." I added that Cantrell's lawyer had given me a phone number but no one had answered there.
One of the women said, "Ed was drunk at the sheep fair. We didn't think we'd see him for a few days, but he came through this morning."
"They don't have that telephone no more," said the man. He got up and moved behind the cash register. "You have to use the radio phone."
He showed me how. The operator had to place the call and call us back; only one person can speak at a time on a radio phone, so conversations tend to be short and to the point. Mine was listened to with something akin to rapture by the coffee drinkers, while wind rattled the Texaco sign out front.
The voice at the other end was cautious, a bit hoarse, gentlemanly. "You've caught me unawares," it said, as if that was more than a little unwise. Then it said, "All right, come on out. What kind of vehicle are you driving, and how many are you?
Not everything I knew about Ed Cantrell was rumor; there were some facts. He had shot a man to death in Rock Springs in 1978, during the wild days of the oil boom, when Cantrell ran that town's law enforcement agency, such as it was. The dead man was one of Cantrell's own officers. Cantrell was tried for murder and acquitted after a dramatic courtroom battle in which he demonstrated the speed of his draw. The publicity made Cantrell famous in the intermountain West, but afterward he could not get a job in official law enforcement. Since he had worked as a free-lance range detective before going to Rock Springs, he went back to the range, dropping out of sight with a rare collection of guns, telescopes, and experiences.
Finding him had not been easy. I had called a security agency in Rock Springs where Cantrell worked for a time after the trial. Ed was a good man, said the one who had hired him, but he liked to work alone. He gave me the name and number of a lawyer. The lawyer said he would check with Cantrell, but couldn't reach him. Finally a secretary came up with an old telephone number and mentioned the name of a ranch outside Powder River.
It belonged to a Casper banker — 170,000 acres, about half BLM land, north of the highway. The dirt road split and after ten miles split again, without houses or trees or landmarks other than fence posts with an occasional sheep skull on top. There were thirty thousand sheep out there somewhere. If a person didn't pay attention to directions he might find himself out of gas and luck, stared at by antelope down from the Bighorn Mountains to look for water, and maybe by Ed Cantrell.
A sheep rancher had once told a newspaper reporter that he hired Cantrell to kill some sons of bitches and that Cantrell had stopped the rustling on his range. "Rustlers aren't afraid of the courts," the rancher said, "but they're afraid of Ed." What they were afraid of was his gun. Most everyone in the West had one, but Cantrell supposedly used his.
From the top of a ridge in huge, empty country, I looked down on a lambing shed and a dozen old herders' wagons. The abandonment of the herding system in this part of Wyoming had meant greater loss of unsupervised sheep, which rustlers supposedly loaded onto trucks in remote canyons at night. In front of a little prefab house stood a pickup painted military green. Even the cottonwoods out back had the harsh radiance of an overexposed photograph. I drove down and parked. The screen door opened and a wiry man with a full white mustache appeared on the porch, squinting in the sun. His denim shirt was gone at the elbows, and unbuttoned to reveal dog tags on a metal chain. "I'm Ed Cantrell," he said, shaking hands tentatively. It seemed as if he didn't want the right one tied up loo long. "Come on in."
He sat on the couch and fished a Camel from his pocket, moving with the care of someone prodigiously hung over. Ed Cantrell had a recruit's buzz cut and a recruit's body, but his face looked every bit of its fifty-seven years. While we talked he never took his bloodshot, cornflower blue eyes off mine. The room was spare as a barracks, with a television set and copies of the Bible, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Gun Digest, and Guns and Ammunition on a shelf. Eleven rifles and shotguns stood propped against the wall.
"I travel with them," he said. "They keep me from being so lonely. I touch then, and, well... they've been with me a long time. They give me a little stability."
There were two .30/06's, a legendary Weatherby, a Remington 12 gauge shotgun he had given to his father, now dead. The others had come to him gradually over thirty years of law enforcement, starting as an MP in Germany in 1948. He had few other mementos. The afghan on the couch had been knitted by his mother in Illinois. On the wall hung a framed Grandfather Achievement Award.
I asked if he had to shoot people in his present line of work. "Why do you think I'm here? Not because I teach Sunday school. This man hired me because he wanted something done about sheep stealing. You have to make it in the world, and this is all I know how to do. The sheep that come out of this country go somewhere. They don't disappear. It's my job to find out what happens and stop it. The fact that you're talking to me north of Powder River doesn't mean I might not be sitting in Texas tomorrow. I follow a lead anywhere. There are some pretty hard people involved in this. If I stay more than two nights in a place, I get nervous."
He gestured toward the four walls. "This is a good place for me to rest. Some of these rustlers I know, but they all know me." The question had not exactly been answered, but then Cantrell didn't care for direct inquiry. You had to work up to the point with him and then sit through some profound silences. "I'm a renegade," he said. "You have to understand that. I'm more vulnerable working alone, but I'm also more effective."
"What would you say if someone asked you about bodies in the Red Desert?"
"I'd say I didn't know what the hell he was talking about."
His father was a preacher. Cantrell worked for the Indiana State Police after the war and came west in the early fifties, looking for space. He found it in Wyoming, where he assisted various county sheriffs and gradually learned the trade of range detective. The ranchers apparently liked his style. "I don't just work for rich people, but if you can't afford me, you can't afford me." That meant twenty thousand a year, plus expenses. "This rancher is a good Christian man. I told him I wouldn't sign a contract. If I didn't like the way things were going, I'd roll my bed and move. I don't have any strings on me."
One of his two sons was killed by a drunk driver, Cantrell said, about the time Rock Springs boomed. He was offered the job of police chief, and accepted, to get away from his own misery. "It was the biggest mistake of my life."
The town had tripled in size, with thirty bars and reportedly twice as many pimps. "It was a zoo. People were lined up outside the bars twenty-four hours a day. The police would go in and get beat up and thrown out onto the street. We got rid of the pimps first. You know what a pimp looks like? Big floppy hats, big cars. I'd go up to one, and say, 'You know me, don't you? You know what my job is, don't you? You're not going to be here after today. I'm going home to dinner, and if you're still here when I come back I'm going to start shooting at you.' "
He did not get along with his undercover narcotics agent, whom Cantrell suspected of pocketing the contraband. One night, sitting in a squad car outside the Silver Dollar saloon, the two men fell into an argument, in the presence of two other cops. Cantrell shot the narcotics agent. His name was Mike Rosa and his death galvanized a city already charged with corruption and unbridled, murderous behavior. Cantrell said he shot Rosa in self-defense when he saw him reach for his gun; the two cops remembered it differently. Cantrell was in jail for three weeks before the ranchers of eastern Wyoming came to his rescue. "I had no money. They flew over from Casper," and hired an attorney to defend him. "The bond was five hundred thousand and those fellows just happened to have it."
The prosecution claimed that Cantrell had threatened to kill Rosa before; the charge was murder, since Rosa had no gun in his hand when it finally happened. The defense claimed that Rosa had reached for his gun, after cussing Cantrell, and that Cantrell flat outdrew him. "I had to demonstrate three times in the courtroom," Cantrell said.
He showed me now, reaching for an imaginary pistol in an imaginary holster and aiming at my head. "Can you imagine the pressure? After the first draw, you could see the jury relax, because they saw I was fast enough. Then they understood what had happened that night, and they all sat back and crossed their arms.''
Cantrell was acquitted, but as part of the bond deal he had to be out of Sweetwater County within four hours. "Four hours! Let that sink in. I had just bought a corner lot and house. I went back and threw my camping gear in the back of the Bronco and took off. I won't say my wife wasn't supportive — that would be cheap, and she's not here to defend herself " — but they had lived separately ever since. "I've paid a terrible price for what I am," he said. "I don't run with anyone, I don't trust anyone. It goes with the territory."
There was something appealing about Cantrell that went beyond the hangover and the pain in the eyes and the anachronism — a vulnerability associated with age, and isolation. Like so many Westerners he grew up in Webb's "humid regions," shooting squirrels out of leafy green trees and imagining an open, arid frontier. He had become the dream of every ten-year-old boy who went into a Saturday matinee between 1920 and the time television killed the Western.
     "I want to tell you something about what my life is like."
Cantrell was driving his pickup toward a sheep camp, up a narrow winding road. He sat forward, hugging the steering wheel, watching the ridgelines, looking more like a Prussian artillery officer than a detective, with his mustache and gray crew cut. The immense landscape, undifferentiated to the urban eye, took on subtle variations in color: pinks and pale lavenders, and dark shadows on the edge of sunlight.
An unlit Camel dangled from Cantrell's lips. He wore no gun, but several were packed in the truck, which growled unnaturally, trailing water from a leaky radiator. He preferred a horse to pickups or all-terrain vehicles because a horse was quiet and did not raise a cloud of dust.
"From time to time I like to drink a few beers," he said. "I get a little unconscious. There's a bar in Shoshoni I go to. The owner's a friend of mine. I know the people there, they know me; I feel comfortable. I can sit and listen to the juke box and ogle them ole dried-up gals, like I like to do.
"One night this guy comes in and sits up at the bar. He's a cowboy-looking guy. He stares, which starts to bother me. Then he comes over and says, 'I know who you are, and I know you're after me.' Well, he's drunk, and I'm not. I say, 'I never saw you in my life.' He keeps on pushing. It gets heavy. I say, 'I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I never heard of you, and I'm not after you.'
"He goes out into the parking lot and comes back with a pistol under his jacket. I can see it. He sits up at the bar and keeps turning around and looking at me. Finally I tell the waitress to call the sheriff and get him out of there before I blow this son of a bitch off his stool. It turns out —now get this —that he's the former son-in-law of an old friend of mine. He beat up my friend's daughter, and my friend told him he was going to take out a contract on him with Ed Cantrell. Only trouble was, he never told me about it."
He laughed at the irony. "No matter what I do, I'm in a bad position." He added, almost wistfully, "People use my name." I had the impression that a multitude of arguments hung out there in the middle distance, waiting to be resolved.
"I'll tell you a story. I was riding down the road and saw this fella pushing some cows. I stopped to watch. He rode up and said, 'I know who you are, you son of a bitch! Don't screw with me,' and rode off again. His daughter was roping, so I drove over and asked her what was wrong with her daddy. She said, 'Who are you?' I said, 'I'm Ed Cantrell.' And she said, 'You're what's wrong with him.'
"I went to my boss and told him about it. 'I want you to know the situation,' I said, 'because if that son of a bitch talks to me that way again, I'm gonna blow him out of the saddle.'"
The road looped and rose some more; evergreen appeared — a sign of moisture. "You never know when somebody's watching you in this country,'' he said. "That's why I thought you might want to drive your own vehicle." He carried two sets of binoculars, one of them for night work, and a telescope on a gun stock. "Every time I look through it, I wonder if somebody's looking at me. Don't worry, this isn't the right time of year to get shot."
The right time was autumn — slaughter season for lambs, and maybe a human or two.
"Why hasn't some rustler already shot you?" 
"I've often wondered that myself."
After reflection, he said, "It's dirty, boring, tedious work, but I keep coming back to it. I've laid up on these ole ridges many a cold night. I like to ease into a place, and stay a few days, watching. You get where you know who the people are, or you have strong suspicions. It's a close-knit bunch here, old-timers. They learned rustling from their dads. It's so isolated they get a bunch of sheep out there and shear 'em so there's no paint brand. All that's left is the earmark. They take 'em to another state and change that. It's easy."
The sheep camp consisted of a knockdown corral, a beat-up trailer, two saddled horses, and two Mexicans standing warily by, waiting to see if I worked for Immigration before they bolted. The ranch foreman came out and shook Cantrell's hand. He was Chris, a born-again Christian who worked as lay pastor of the Home of Our Shepherd nondenominational church in Powder River as well as ranch foreman. He invited me into the trailer to have coffee with an Anglo herder while Cantrell dipped water from the spring for his radiator.
"Ed's made a difference," Chris said. "Last year we lost three hundred sheep, down from a thousand. This year we haven't lost a one."
A thousand sheep were worth sixty thousand dollars, not counting wool and lambs. The economics of rustling made sense, when several hundred sheep could be packed into one cattle truck.
"Just having somebody on the place helps. That, and Ed's name. The price of lamb has turned some honest ranchers into thieves. It's a hard old way. Now Ed makes 'em think. If he catches you, will he arrest you or will he shoot you? I wouldn't want him to catch me rustling sheep."
"He's pretty quick," said the herder, watching Ed through the window. The herder wore a leather holster for his Skoal tin, above greasy chaps. "He can stand up and spin around like that." He snapped his fingers. "He can look right through you and make you feel like you've done something wrong." He sucked coffee through his mustache. "You'll be out working in the middle of nowhere, thinking you're all alone, and you'll turn around and there'll be ole Ed."
The murder trial in Rock Springs had raised both men's estimation of Cantrell. "After his arrest," said Chris, "he never tried to hide his face or anything. And it was hard on ole Ed."
On the way back down the mountain, Cantrell told me he had created his own job security. "I'll run the rustlers off this place, and they'll go next door. Then that rancher'll hire me. The winters are tough, though. You really feel 'em when you get older."
He planned to retire in three years, he said. He wanted to buy a little house on a quiet street in Casper and maybe help raise his daughter's son. He hoped people would let him be.
He stopped on the hill above the house, then rolled the pickup slowly down. He took a worn black holster from beneath the seat, and strapped it on after he had gotten out of the truck. He unloaded the revolver, a .38 with custom grips made of mesquite. "People are too rigid with handguns," he said. "You have to be fluid, and use the same motion every time you reach for it."
He moved his hand in circles, like a conjurer, starting at the bottom of the holster and coming up with the pistol. "It's a muscle-mind thing." He repeated the process twice, pulling the trigger each time. Snick.... snick.... "If you do something once, it's one thing. If you do it ten thousand times, it's something else. You don't stab. Just reaching for the pistol can get you into trouble — you break the motion and have to start again. This way I can begin to pull the trigger as I come up to here."
"We're talking milliseconds. You drop your shoulder a little and shoot from the hip. It's the opposite of the FBI crouch, which is supposed to help your balance but really's bullshit because it takes too much time. My way, you don't have to absorb any lead. Don't shoot for the body, it's a waste of time. If you have to shoot him, shoot him in the face."
He turned to me, five feet between us. "This is knife range. Now the natural tendency is to shoot low. I have special grips, to level the gun when my finger's on the trigger. Automatics are especially bad because you have to bring them up. I can shoot with just the feel of this gun. That's why I like a heavy six-inch barrel. I shot Rosa with a six-inch barrel."
"Right between the eyes."
He reloaded and holstered the pistol, and turned as if to go into the house. Suddenly the gun was in his hand again, cocked, his wrist pressed against his hip. I looked at this slight, wiry man with his very blue eyes, and saw in them a natural, utterly impersonal force that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The gun went off with a terrific roar, throwing up dirt a dozen feet away. The bullet had nicked the upper edge of a red rock the size of a half dollar.
"Shooting high today," said Ed Cantrell.                                                                       

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