I later heard
the story around a campfire. This time the steer was black, and the word showed
up ‘like chalk on a blackboard.’ According to the seller, two ranchers, at a roundup,
disputed the ownership of the steer. The dispute became a difficulty and one of
the men was shot and killed. The other escaped. Cowboys who worked for the dead
man roped and tied down the steer, then branded it with the word MURDER. According
to the teller of the tale, the brand didn’t truly scar the hide, but killed the
color-producing cells in the hair follicles, so that when the hair grew back it
grew in white. The Murder Maverick then began following the murderer everywhere
he went, until he had to leave the country entirely. It then went off into the
mountains in the trans-Pecos area. It only appeared occasionally, but when it
did and the brand was read, someone would be murdered shortly afterward.
the early ‘60s the story turned up in a black-and-white ‘horror’ comic. It was
later part of an episode on the Rawhide television program.
there ever really a Murder Maverick? The answer, strangely enough, is yes. In
January of 1896, in Brewster County, just out of Alpine,
there was a ‘cow gather,’ which is what cattlemen called what’s today called a
‘roundup’ before the movies came along. At the time Brewster County—indeed, most
of trans-Pecos Texas and much of the
panhandle—was still open range. One of the ranchers at the gather was a one-armed
Confederate veteran named Henry H. Powe—pronounced ‘Poe,’ not ‘Pow.’ He
had his son Robert with him. Another person present was Emanuel ‘Manny’ Clements,
cousin to John Wesley Hardin. Still a third was a man named Finus ‘Fine’
Gilliland. Gilliland was a ‘rep’—an agent for absentee ranch owners, to look
after their interests at the gather. He was also, apparently, a man of some reputation
as a gunman. He was not, of course, in a league with people like Manny Clements
or Wes Hardin, but he did have a known reputation.
yearling bullcalf, brindle in color, came up in the gather. It was not following
a cow. According to several men in the party, they had seen the animal on the
range during the year, and when they saw it, it was following a cow branded HHP.
HHP was Henry Powe’s brand, so he cut out the bullcalf and drove it to his gather,
which his son Bob was holding. Gilliland noticed the bullcalf in the Powe gather
and demanded the young man produce an HHP cow to go with it. There wasn’t one,
but young Bob Powe told him that several men mentioned seeing the yearling
following an HHP cow earlier. Gilliland then stated that unless the Powes could
produce an HHP cow to go with the yearling, it wasn’t HHP stock. He ordered Bob
Powe to cut it out of the HHP gather. He then drove the calf back into the main
As he did so, Henry Powe rode up to him and words passed between
the men, but no one was close enough to hear what they were. Henry Powe then went
to a rancher named Kelly, on whose land the gather was being held, talked to him
for a moment, and then rode to Manny Clements. He spoke to Manny a moment, then
reached in Manny’s saddle pocket.
Henry Powe did not customarily carry
a pistol, and as a one-armed man he had trouble shooting long guns. Manny Clements,
however, carried revolvers in his saddle pockets, it being against local regulations
to carry pistols openly. Powe took a pistol from Manny’s saddle pocket and stuck
it in his waistband. He then turned back to the gather and began to cut out the
At that point Gilliland rode into the gather and threw
a rope at the bullcalf, whether to catch it or to head it off no one knows. Henry
Powe then pulled the pistol out of his waistband and fired—shooting not at Gilliland,
but at the bullcalf. He missed.
Gilliland dismounted, dropped to one knee,
aimed carefully—and missed Henry Powe clean. Powe then dismounted, wrapped his
reins around his only arm—the one that held the pistol—and fired at Gilliland.
He not only missed, his horse shied wildly, jerking him to the ground. He got
up, recocked the revolver, and missed Gilliland again. Gilliland returned fire
for a second miss. At that point Powe’s pistol’s hammer either fell on a dud cartridge
or a primer backed out, jamming the weapon. While Powe tried to deal with the
situation, Gilliland ran up to him, pushed Powe’s only arm aside, placed the muzzle
of his weapon to the Confederate veteran’s chest, and fired, killing Henry Powe
instantly. He then jumped on his horse and rode away.
According to Robert
Powe, he heard about the men branding the bullcalf with the word MURDER and the
date of the murder, but did not see the act. Immediately the law went after Gilliland.
About a week later Brewster County Deputy Sheriff Thalis Cook and Texas
Ranger Jim Putman came up on a stranger in an unnamed canyon in the Big Bend
country. Cook demanded to know if the man was Fine Gilliland. He was—he replied
with gunfire, killing Cook’s horse and wounding the deputy in the knee. Cook returned
fire, killing Gilliland’s horse. Gilliland took cover behind the fallen animal
and continued to shoot.
Jim Putman calmly dismounted, pulled out his Winchester,
knelt on the icy ground, and rested the carbine across a boulder. He waited. Soon
Gilliland, apparently getting curious about the lack of gunfire from the lawmen,
poked his head over the horse’s back. That was exactly what Jim was waiting for.
Gilliland Canyon is named for him, because that’s where Jim shot him—square between
Henry Powe was buried from the Methodist Church in Alpine—a
church he helped establish. Gilliland’s remains were collected by relatives and
he’s buried in Snyder.
And there the story might have remained—had it not been for Wigfall Van Sickle.
Wigfall Van Sickle, named for US Senator and later Confederate
Colonel Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, was a storyteller. He liked a good story. He
also didn’t mind making a story better than it was to begin with.
was a lawyer in Alpine
and later Brewster County Judge. According to him, he—then merely a lawyer—and
the then District Judge were riding from Alpine
to Fort Stockton
for a trial when they spotted a big red maverick bull. The Judge and the lawyer
headed and heeled the creature, which fell on its left side. They built a fire
and started heating a spur to brand it, when the Judge mentioned that cattle were
normally branded on the left flank. They rolled the animal over and “Behold! The
animal was branded with the word MURDER in letters a foot high,” to quote Van
Unless you’ve chased a few cattle yourself, there are a couple
of minor points that just don’t jibe here. First, anybody who heads or heels a
full-grown bull and doesn’t see a brand in letters ‘a foot high’ on its left side
either needs glasses awful bad or didn’t rope the animal he said he roped. Second,
the bullcalf over which two men died was brindle, and brindle animals don’t turn
red no matter what you brand them with.
Van Sickle was also the apparent
author of the tale about the Murder Maverick and the Alpine saloon. Supposedly,
during a discussion of Henry Powe’s murder, the Murder Maverick itself stuck its
head in a window and let loose with a ‘blood-clabberin’ bawl.’ He apparently added
other embellishments, including the story about seeing the animal being an omen
legend of the Murder Maverick—the Wigfall Van Sickle version, anyway—first appeared
in a Galveston newspaper about 1916. Barry Scobee, the ‘Bard of the Big
Bend,’ published it in the ‘20s. Dobie used it in an outdoor magazine in the ‘30s,
then put it in THE LONGHORNS.
So what happened to the actual ‘murder maverick?’
According to Bob Powe, it stayed on the ranch until 1905. At that point a local
cattleman named Bob Allen was making up a herd to drive to the Indian reservations
in Montana. Powe put the animal in Allen’s herd, then followed the herd until
he saw the animal over which his father had been murdered cross the
Pecos. We can safely assume that, some four or five months later the ‘murder
maverick’—the flesh-and-blood animal—was converted to jerky, hoof and horn glue,
and a tipi door.
But the Murder Maverick? It’s become part of the legend
that is Texas. Let’s hope it—and the rest of that legend—never dies.