Wild Wicked Deeds Around Sonora

Robert E. Howard surely had a passionate feeling for his native southwest and its history. Even in a dark fantasy like “The Valley of the Lost” he gives the tale an anchor in savage reality with his description of a Texas feud – of, I don’t doubt, the exact sort that took place often, “short, fierce and appallingly bloody.” There’s also a brief sidelight on the Comanche and Kiowa wars in a mention of an Indian band “fleeing the vengeance of Bigfoot Wallace and his rangers.”

“The Horror from the Mound” is even stronger, and again anchored in Texas reality as it opens with a young cocrovwpuncher-turned-farmer brooding on the bad luck, in the form of blizzards, hail and locusts that has dogged his efforts. The bloke is having troubles of Biblical proportion, and he hasn’t even opened the haunted mound yet.

From his letter to H.P. Lovecraft concerning Sonora, Texas, he could have done a grisly tale set in or near that community too. Sonora’s a decent enough place, mind you, the seat of Sutton County. It wasn’t established until fairly late in the state’s history – 1885. Rancher and merchant Charles Adams settled there on four sections of land, gave the place its name after a family servant who came from Sonora in Mexico, and drilled a well in 1889. The community became blessed with a post office in the same year.

That’s quite a bit younger than Dallas or El Paso, for instance, but there was still time for plenty to happen there, and by REH’s account, plenty did. In December of 1930 he informed Lovecraft:

One could write a book from the tales told of Sonora alone, a sleepy little town of a few hundred inhabitants lying in the hills about a hundred miles from the Border. For instance, a good many years ago, a young cocrovwpuncher went on the rampage up in Wyoming and started smoking his way to the Border. I dont know what started him on the tear – maybe a girl went back on him, or red liquor ran him crazy – anyway he came south like a sand-storm, leaving a trail of shot-up towns and bullet-riddled marshals and sheriffs behind him. That went alright as long as he was in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, but the Texans of that day were a hard, hard breed.

He rode up on the hills about Sonora one day and started throwing rifle bullets into the streets. Everybody scattered, not thinking much about it, but supposing it was just some local puncher in on a tear. But he got hold of somebody and sent word that he would ride into the town at a certain hour for supplies and he ordered the stores left open and the streets deserted – he would kill any man, woman or child he saw in the town. And he most certainly meant it. At the hour named he rode down the street and saw no living soul. The stores were open but they were deserted. He dismounted and entered. No one behind the counters. He began filling his saddle-bags with groceries – and the town marshal appeared at one door and the county judge at the other. When the smoke cleared away all three were down – the Wyoming man stone dead and the other two badly wounded, though they recovered.

Well, the berserk stranger was from Wyoming, and it may be that Sonora was a pretty law-abiding place even back then. Looking up the statistics, I find that in the years 2001 through 2004, violent crime in Sonora was considerably below the U.S. average – less than a third of the average in 2001, about a quarter in 2002, considerably less than half in 2003, and about half in 2004. In 2005 it jumped to considerably higher – about one and one-third the average for the nation. But since the population is only about 3,000 in this twenty-first century, one or two crimes more than the average in a year would cause one hell of a jump in the crime figures per head.

Even natural violence in the area doesn’t seem too bad. Looking up information about the local weather, I find that tornadoes, historically, have been well below the Texas state average. They’re even below the USA’s national average – by nearly forty per cent.

More interesting than crime, and certainly more attractive, is the national landmark eight miles west of the town – the Caverns of Sonora. They are unique and breathtakingly beautiful. They extend for miles and were formed by the action of water over the ages, out of limestone formations 100 million years old. Gases, probably sulfurous in nature, rose from deep within the earth and mingled with water to create acidic solutions, such as (very dilute) sulfuric and sulfurous acid. But even in mild solution the acid was enough to dissolve away large amounts of limestone and produce the cave system – probably between two and five million years ago.

Moving from the dry scientific facts to the sheer grandeur and beauty of the place, just the names of the various caverns and galleries are evocative enough to make you see visions. Palace of the Angels … Moon Milk Falls … the Butterfly … Christmas Tree Room … the War Club formations … the Valley of Ice … The caves hold an incredible profusion of helictites, about the most delicate and fragile of all calcite formations. They take ribbon- , needle- , or butterfly-like forms, among others, and believe it or not, idiots who vandalize them just for the hell of it are a problem to those who want to preserve the place for responsible tourists. There are some kinds of stupidity that verge on blasphemy.

The outer portions of the cave system were known to local ranch hands by the early 1900s. Back then it was known as Mayfield Cave, after the owner of the ranch on which the entrance was located. Cavers discovered a further seven miles of the system in 1955. That, of course, was about twenty years after Robert E. Howard’s untimely death. He never knew the caverns existed, or he probably would have written something about them – maybe even in a story.

He did create a cowboy character called Steve Allison, the Sonora Kid – related to Clay Allison, maybe. The Kid was a contemporary of REH’s better-known character, El Borak, and even appeared in several stories with him, in a 1987 collection called North of the Khyber. The Kid, if he’d really lived, might even have been on the scene when a tragic event took place, which REH describes in the same letter to Lovecraft:

Then once, up in Oklahoma, a young puncher stole an old ranchman’s daughter and they rode hell-for-leather for the Border, with the old man hot on their heels. Another hundred miles and they might have been safe, but the old man caught up with them and killed them both just outside Sonora.

Another person who finally came to his end at Sonora was the outlaw, Will Carver. Carver had been born in the Lone Star State — Coryell County – in 1866. Or September 12th, 1868, in Wilson County, as I’ve read in another source. Like a number of other Old West outlaws, he began as an honest cocrovwpuncher, working on the “Half Circle Six” ranch. His parents, George and Martha Jane Carver (maiden name Rigsby) had left Missouri for Texas while the Civil War was bloodily raging. During Will’s early life in Texas, his family’s nearest neighbor was Richard T. Carver (“Uncle Dick”) whose wife Margaret had apparently been born a Causey. The Causey family also lived nearby.

Will’s father George vanished for parts unknown in 1870. His reason, possibly, was that he’d become involved in one of the old-time savage Texas feuds without meaning to, and expected to die if he hung around. His wife Martha Jane, when she failed to hear from him, assumed he was dead, and married Walter Scott Causey in 1872.

Will Carver and his sister Frances (Fanny) settled down well enough with their stepfather, and the bunch of half-brothers and -sisters who duly arrived. But Fanny married in 1880 and Will saw less of his full sibling after that. He became closer to his Uncle Dick Carver, and in his teens worked on roundups with the older cowhand.

While young Carver worked on the Half Circle Six, the foreman was one Jim Lambert. Lambert had a sister-in-law by the name of Viana Byler, and Viana’s niece, Laura Bullion, would later become a notorious female outlaw – with the Wild Bunch, no less. Will Carver began seeing both of them socially. Then, as the 1889 spring roundup began, another person who would later be notorious joined the Half Circle Six outfit – Tom Ketchum. Ketchum was a loudmouth, a practical joker and something of a bully. Carver, being young and a new hand, came in for a share of hazing which he took good-humoredly – within limits. But Ketchum exceeded those limits when he lay down to sleep wearing boots and spurs in the bedroll next to Will’s, and said to Will loudly that was, regrettably, subject to wild fits, and if he had one, he would mount, ride and apply spurs to the nearest person. Carver responded by slowly drawing his gun and telling Ketchum that he had unpredictable reactions himself, and was sure, if violently disturbed during the night, to wake up shooting.

Carver seems by most accounts to have been quiet and easy-going in his manner unless provoked, and popular with the Half Circle Six outfit’s cocrovwpokes. A gent named Bob Evans related that when a hand named Hamilton was hired, despite suffering from consumption, Carver helped him out by breaking the wild outlaw horses in his string that Hamilton, due to his illness, could never have managed. So he was apparently good-hearted. But he was exceptionally fast and skilled with pistols, too, even for that time and place, which was surely the reason why the obstreperous Ketchum decided not to bother him after all.

As for Hamilton, he eventually beat the disease and became a successful rancher.

Will Carver left the Half Circle Six in the summer of 1892. Early that year he had married Viana Byler in San Angelo – without her parents’ blessing, which upset and angered them very much. Carver went off to Indian Territory with his new wife, and changed circumstances for the Bullion children meant that they moved around a good deal after that. And Laura Bullion’s aunt Viana, after less than six months of married life, died from complications and fever during pregnancy. Her parents expressed their feelings about her marriage by having her gravestone carved with the name “Viana E. Byler” – not Carver. Will Carver was shattered by her death, and like the “honest young puncher” in the song, he “turned to a gun-shootin’ gambler”, as well as a pretty hard drinker. He bedded a lot of women but never loved another one.

As for Laura Bullion, she must have been fairly bright at the least; her average at school in the sixth grade was 90.

Tom Ketchum was said to have murdered a cattle rancher and neighbor, John Powers, in a quarrel, in Tom Green County, Texas, in December 1895. But the Sutton Historical Society has information on record which indicates that Tom’s brother Sam Ketchum, and Will Carver, who were partners in a saloon and gambling joint in San Angelo at the time, were the ones accused. They closed their establishment and took it on the lam. Later, the dead man’s widow and her lover were arrested for the murder, but by then Will Carver and the Ketchums were outlaws and criminals past recall.

In 1896 an outlaw band known as the High Five or Black Jack Gang was operating. Their leader was known as “Black Jack” Christian. Tom Ketchum and his brother Sam arrived in the same area – southeast Arizona – towards the end of that year. They both had killings in their history by then. In June of 1896 they looted a grocery store and post office in Liberty, San Miguel County, and then headed towards the Pecos with the store proprietor, Levi Herzstein, and three companions in pursuit. The amateur posse was unfortunate; it caught the Ketchums. The brothers opened fire with no beg-your-pardons. Herzstein and one of his companions, Merejildo Gallegos, were killed, a third man was wounded and saved his life by shamming death, while the fourth, whose name is uncertain, ran for his life after his horse had been killed under him. In the meantime, the Black Jack Gang – small-timers, really – had murdered a rancher they believed had informed on them. “Black Jack” Christian and Tom Ketchum were both tall, burly and dark of hair and complexion; on that slight basis, when Christian was killed on April 28th, 1897, he was identified as Tom Ketchum and buried under that name. Tom Ketchum probably laughed fit to burst when he heard about it, but not for too long, since he was occupied with planning a train robbery.

Will Carver, who had been acquainted with Ketchum off and on since their days on the Half Circle Six, had agreed to join him in the holdup. They picked the depot and telegraph office at Lozier as the locale. Sam Ketchum, though, had refused to take part with them, and they needed one more gang member at least. They recruited a fellow named Dave Atkins, who had committed a murder in Knickerbocker as gone on the run, and held up the train at Lozier, holding the driver at gunpoint while the train safes – one large, one small – were blown open. The gang escaped with three bulging sacks of loot, even though quite a bit of paper money had been destroyed by the amateurish dynamite blasts. This was Carver and Ketchum’s first big crime in the robbery line, and it was the start of a plunder spree that would make the “Black Jack” Christian gang’s depredations look like children’s games.

The confusion of Christian and Ketchum’s identities continued, even with Christian a-mouldering in his grave. Tom Ketchum became known as “Black Jack” Ketchum, and the myth prevailed that he and the original “Black Jack” were the same man, and the rumors of his death were exaggerated. This made little sense from any logical standpoint, but where outlaws were concerned, most people were avid for gossip and indifferent to logic.

The notorious Harvey Logan, aka Kid Curry, and his brother Lonnie, were briefly members of the Ketchum gang. After only a few months, however, there was a dispute over splitting loot that led to the Currys leaving the gang. Considering how lethal Harvey Logan was, it’s astonishing the disagreement wasn’t bloody and settled with gunfire.

In passing, there was a movie made in the 1950s, titled Black Jack Ketchum — Desperado. Howard Duff played Ketchum, transmuted by the script into a much sanitized hero as much like the real life Tom Ketchum as a lollipop is like rat-poison. The movie Ketchum is unjustly outlawed after shooting a man in self-defense, and then he goes up against a nasty cattle baron and his hired gun to restore peace in the area. No train robberies by this version of Ketchum, and no association with Harvey Logan or the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, either.

The real Tom Ketchum and his gang – which included Will Carver as a permanent member by now – often visited the ranch of Herb Bassett in Colorado. Bassett used to deal with outlaws as a regular thing, supplying them with beef and horses at a much better profit than the honest market price. His daughters, Josie and Ann, liked the company of outlaws themselves. They were both good-looking and both wild. Ann, known as “Queen Ann” Bassett, was Butch Cassidy’s girl by 1893, and her sister was getting it on with Cassidy’s closest friend, Elzy Lay. In 1894 Cassidy went to prison (though the sentence wasn’t a long one) and Ann turned to a new love, Ben Kilpatrick, also an outlaw.

Ann’s elder sister Josie, by the time Butch Cassidy’s 18-month sentence was up, had become involved with Will Carver. Will was given the nickname “News” because he delighted in reading about the Ketchum gang’s robberies in the papers. That could have inspired the scene in the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which Butch and Sundance sit happily on a balcony overlooking the town street where reporters and photographers are getting the story of the recent robbery they committed. “I just eat this up with a spoon,” Paul Newman, as Butch, says to Robert Redford.

Besides the Ketchum brothers (Sam having come aboard) and Carver, Ben Kilpatrick was a member, as was “Bronco Bill” Walters. They took to operating out of the nearly impregnable pass, Hole-In-The-Wall, in Wyoming. It was used by several outlaw gangs, including Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Harvey Logan (Kid Curry) and his brother were with the Wild Bunch by then, and whenever they used the natural stronghold at the same time as the Ketchum gang, “Black Jack” and Carver avoided them, were polite, and watched their backs.

It wasn’t long before Carver broke up with Josie (or she took a new lover). “News” Carver’s next girlfriend was Laura Bullion, the niece of his late wife. Laura had already gone to the bad with no help from Carver. She worked as a prostitute while still a young girl – some say in the well-known brothel run by Madam Fannie Porter in San Antonio, Texas. While Carver rode with the Ketchum gang, Laura wanted to join him, but he wouldn’t hear of it at first, and saw her only between robberies. The Porter brothel was a frequent hangout for the Ketchum gang and the Wild Bunch. In the complex game of musical lovers played by the Bassett sisters and Laura with various outlaws, “News” Carver dropped Laura for another whore at the Porter brothel, Lillie Davis, and Laura turned to Ben Kilpatrick.

Carver broke with the Ketchum gang after a failed robbery, and headed for Robbers’ Roost in Utah, where he joined the Wild Bunch led by Butch Cassidy. Laura Bullion was a member of the Wild Bunch herself, by then, like the Bassett girls’ father making a good thing out of supplying the outlaws with beef and horses, and taking part in robberies with them. It agreed with her better than life in a brothel. When “News” Carver became one of the Wild Bunch, he and Laura got together again – but the dawn of the twentieth century spelled the end of the outlaw life for all of them, and doom for some.

Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum had been captured trying to rob a train single-handed, in August 1899. He was shot in the arm, which had to be amputated later. He was sentenced to hang for “felonious assault upon a railway train”, and it was done in 1901, but the hanging was bungled by amateurs. The rope was too long and Ketchum had gained weight in prison. The drop, in a macabre development, tore his head off.

Laura Bullion was caught and convicted of train robbery in the same year, 1901. She received a sentence of five years. Once released, she abandoned her own name and used various others while making a living as a seamstress and dress designer.

Will Carver came to his end in Sonora, Texas, in April 1901, the very month that his old comrade Ketchum was hanged. He had made big money for the times from his robberies; in Jeffrey Burton’s The Deadliest Outlaws, Burton writes that he “’earned’ something between $45,000 and $50,000, minus most of his notional share on [one] occasion … that would have left him with at least $25,000 net, to which must be added more than $10,000 known to have been his portion of the take from a bank robbery committed after the dissolution of the Ketchum gang.”

But Carver grew overconfident and reckless, which had never been his way before. Early in April, he and Ben Kilpatrick’s brother George rode into Sonora while Ben and Harvey Logan waited just outside of town. They were there to case the local bank for their usual purpose – a robbery. The sheriff of Sutton County at the time was Elijah S. Briant, a man whose past occupations had included teaching school, ranching, six years as a local druggist, manager of a mercantile company, and postmaster. Briant had heard, as sheriff, about the Great Northern train robbery in which Carver had lately been involved in Montana. He wouldn’t have supposed Carver and Kilpatrick were in town to buy oats for their horses, although that is one story that has been maintained. This blogger doubts it. They were there with a stickup on their minds. When Briant was given the word that two suspicious-looking strangers were in town, he apparently discovered who they were and called on four deputies. Carver and Kilpatrick were in the local bakery when the lawmen caught them from two sides.

A fellow as savvy as Lige S. Briant wouldn’t have been inclined to give a notoriously fast gun like “News” Carver a chance to show just how fast and accurate he was. He didn’t. He and his deputies opened fire from the front and back entrances of the Sonora bakery. Carver was shot six times before he, as the cliche goes, “cleared leather”. He died three hours later. Will “News” Carver, who’d ridden and robbed with “Black Jack” Ketchum and Butch Cassidy, had made the news for the final time. He perished the way the obstreperous puncher from Wyoming REH wrote about to Lovecraft did.

George Kilpatrick lived. His testimony cleared Carver of the murder of one Oliver Thornton, over in Concho County, of which Carver had been suspected. Later, it became common belief that Thornton had been killed by Harvey Logan instead.

Yes, it may have been founded later than some other Texas towns, but as REH said, one could write a book about events that took place in Sonora alone …