Contrary to one’s first mental image, Four Corners does not form a box. Life here is not constrained. Rather, the Four Corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah form a cross and the lines stretch outward to an infinite western horizon. Viewed from a southwest perspective, it is an “X” on a map marking the location of a hard country, part real, part illusion.
In the blurring of that reality and illusion, glimpsed through the schlieren of superheated air shimmering above red rock canyon floors, is a heritage of guns, desperados and violence. The land and all that flows, grows or roams wild across it belongs to those who share its history, whose great-grandparents died there—whether shot, hung or simply worked into the ground. A distrust of outsiders and the government is instinctual. And lawbreakers both factual and fictional become mythical, from Butch Cassidy to Edward Abbey’s George Hayduke.
Sentiments in Four Corners are conflicted. On the one hand, right and wrong are as self-evident as white hats and black hats. Legal nuance is guffawed at as horsepucky and peacekeepers, both the Colt .45 and the men who wielded it or its modern equivalent are consigned special esteem.
On the other hand, there is something romantic in the ideal of the daring, wild young outlaw thumbing his nose at the law, eluding capture at impossible odds and disappearing in the untamed expanses beyond the horizon of authority. Enough to want to overlook the wrongs and rationalize the intent, sympathize, even admire. Enough to believe that Butch Cassidy, despite Hole-in-the-Wall Gang shootouts that left bodies on the ground, never really harmed anyone. Enough to cheer for George Hayduke as a lovable vandal with a noble cause. To spur rumors, in the absence of proof otherwise, that the outlaw got away, rode into the sunset and onto the plain of legend fueled by dime novels and lurid Eastern newspaper stories—or Web sites.
The duality is not surprising. It is, after all, the American Wild West, a synthesis of geography and history; supernal red sunsets and bloodstained boardwalks; the ethereal silence of a desert night and the jarring crack of gunfire; truth, exaggeration and outright fabrication. Unlike those myths borrowed and burrowed into our psyche from foreign cultures, it is one of our own making, and for better or worse, a fundamental determinant of who we are as Americans.
Like the land and legends that created it, the spirit of the American West is too expansive to capture in cohesive thought, yet we know it by its landmarks: individualism, excess, self-reliance, resourcefulness, impatience and, above all, freedom.
More than the institutionalized freedoms assured by our Constitution and body of law, it was the freedom of hidden canyons, impregnable mountains and unassailable desert. You are free not because a court says so, but because you’ve got a fast horse and a faster gun. It is the freedom of wide-open spaces; of unregulated rivers, unturned earth, unmolested cliffs and unencumbered spirit. It is the freedom of defiance; the right to spare the other cheek and answer any provocation with escalated force.
It is an ethic of contradictions, as a parched desert canyon channels the occasional flash flood. Where self-reliance and independence can flow over to extreme rebuke of all law and authority. Where resolve and courage to stand your ground can become a sudden torrent of violence. It is an ethic suited to making outlaws into outlaw heroes.
Multimillion-dollar ski homes line Butch Cassidy Drive in the town of Telluride, Colorado, on the northeastern edge of Four Corners territory. The gentrified resort community of East Coast second-home owners is uncharacteristic of the real West that rolls endlessly across successive horizons beyond it, where the vehicle of choice is a pickup truck rather than a Prius. Where ranches aren’t hobbies but the livelihood of fourth-generation families, and everyday life still has a raw edge to it. But Telluride was not always distinct from the West. It began as a hardscrabble mining town and it is ironic that today there is a street named after Butch Cassidy. His connection to the community is not as a founder or honorable former mayor, a civic-minded resident or leading businessman. On June 24, 1889, he robbed its bank. He stole twenty thousand dollars of the town’s money, threatened extreme violence against any citizens who might be tempted to interfere with his theft by firing warning shots in the air and, with two accomplices from nearby Cortez, Colorado, rode as fast as he could into the wild canyons over the Utah border. It was, in fact, his first bank robbery and as the plaque on the building that now sits on the bank site proudly reminds, it was on that spot that the Butch Cassidy legend began. It is even more odd that his legacy is summoned in that particular upscale subdivision. Rich Easterners taking control of the choicest Western land were exactly the people Butch Cassidy claimed to be waging his populist war of crime against. Still, even the economic descendants of his victims find Cassidy’s outlaw hero appeal irresistible.
Throughout the decade that police searched for the outlaws whose story is told in the following pages, they scolded the public time and again, “These killers are not heroes.” Privately they were deeply frustrated by the public’s fascination with the fugitives. But such perverse interest was inevitable; especially considering the Wild West nature of the crime.
The tradition of the outlaw hero is universal but it flowered most profusely in the American West. There, the distinction between an outlaw hero and an outlaw hung was not always apparent, but the trail from repugnant criminal to popular desperado was well ridden. Something about life out-of-bounds fascinated the public and even in the face of atrocious crimes, law-abiding citizens seemed more than willing to view bad guys with nervous admiration. In moments of musing as they bent to the task of ordinary life, it was as Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the “cowboy chronicler” who lived in and wrote about the Old West, suggested, “Outlaws are just more interesting than in-laws.”
Part of what made the celebrated outlaws of the American West interesting was their daring crimes and reckless confrontations—in-your-face close and brazenly public. Stripped of one-hundred-plus years of fanciful pop-culture embellishment and decades of Hollywood gilding, Western gunfights were usually less knightly than legend portrays. Many were ambushes, back shootings or long-range shootouts with adversaries crouched behind cover. But others were eye-to-eye with mortal danger so imminent that a reasonable man would slip away and find someplace safe to puke. To engage in them required courage and public opinion turned on such displays of bravery, regardless of what color hat the gunman was wearing.
The one other standard of behavior consistently expected of our outlaw heroes was adherence to an outlaw code of honor. It was an unspoken, ill-defined standard of morality above the law that could overlook unwarranted violence, but required a measure of personal integrity: loyalty to friends and gang members, discrimination between adversaries and bystanders, and straightforward actions. If they were going to steal from you, they robbed you right up front, not by a Ponzi scheme. If they were going to kill you, they rode up and shot you. They were, in most respects, true to their word, transparent in their motivations and intentions.
Although not cheered as revolutionaries or vanguards of a particular political cause, Western outlaw heroes were associated with a populist philosophy. They cultivated the same “true citizen and patriot” image claimed by today’s militia movement. In writings attributed to Butch Cassidy, he describes himself as “a citizen of the United States against cattle barons.” And in another reference, “an outlaw fighting for settlers’ rights against large cattle companies.” In a West where settlers sought the American Dream but where few found riches, on land they worked but of which the largest, most profitable pieces were owned by British and Eastern cattle conglomerates, railroad magnates and mining companies, it was a popular image. Even if the outlaws didn’t redistribute their loot Robin Hood style, they were heroes just for sticking it to the establishment.
There is one more element common to leading Western outlaw heroes—they got away, at least according to legend. Their ability to remain at large for years despite significant efforts to capture them bewitched the public. Better yet, some outlaws were, by legend, never captured at all. They simply eluded the law and disappeared. Jesse James lived on by the wishful thinking of his public, despite the fact that his body was positively identified by the scars of former wounds, put on ice and photographed. Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy’s final escapes are also based on popular rumors, but the historical record leaves room to believe that for each man, the rumor could be true. The truth, however, is not the point. We want them to have escaped. Their wild, unbounded outlaw freedom and wholehearted disregard for authority captures the public imagination and has us in some small manner rooting for the bad guy.
But the main reason the ideal of an outlaw hero resonates so broadly in our society, why we have created a peculiarly American variety within our broader national myth of the American West is that the Western outlaw hero is a twisted extension of core American values.
The desperate outlaw on the run not only had the freedom of the free-roaming cowboy disengaged with society; he pushed back at subjugating social forces—the relentless press of civilization and regulation. For however long he could stay at large, the systematic oppression of government, bureaucracy, corporations, technology—of ordinary do-the-right-thing life—was overthrown. Like standing on the rim of a mesa staring westward across miles of jagged, wild country and feeling not small, but distinct and vital, the outlaw speaks to our elemental ache for individualism. The voice may not have sufficient force to drown out our social conscience or sway our better judgment that an uncaptured outlaw is a menace, but it’s a whisper loud enough to intrigue, to rationalize and romanticize, and in the right circumstances transform a villain into a hero.
It is the myth of the West as much as the reality that forges our national identity. One of the great propagators of the myth, Western moviemaker John Ford, put it best in the 1962 classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Hardwired by a Western narrative of guns and frontier justice, we revel in the positive attributes of strength, courage and daring action even as they open the door for acts of violence. In cheering for the outlaw hero, we are making a psychological stand for freedom, standing up to authoritarianism and dehumanizing social forces, but we are also sanctioning brutal, inhuman antisocial behavior. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, whose preeminent Frontier Thesis first asserted that the American character was formed by the Western experience, warned of the danger of “pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds.” The proper balance is as elusive as Butch Cassidy.
Dynamite Dan Clifton was known as “the most killed outlaw in America.” A cattle rustler and train robber in Oklahoma Indian Territory, he lost three fingers in an 1893 gunfight while riding with the Doolin Gang. He was a relatively minor criminal for the times, not destined for the outlaw hall of fame. Nevertheless Clifton accumulated a sizable bounty on his head—thirty-five hundred dollars. It was enough that posses would constantly turn in a shot-up corpse claiming the reward, but the ten-fingered bodies were quickly identified as someone other than Dynamite Dan. In those cases where the bounty hunters had the foresight to cut fingers off the unfortunate soul they had shot to pieces, they invariably chose the wrong three fingers.
Like Dynamite Dan, the Old West is forever vanishing, but never vanished. It is a way of life successively pronounced dead, allowing each generation in its lament to appreciate it more poignantly. The West most Americans hold in their minds, the unfenced foundational West of open-range grazing and long cattle drives, was barely of drinking age when it was reportedly strangled to death by the barbwire.
It died again a few years later when the 1890 census found the nation no longer had a contiguous line of settlement. American civilization stretched from Plymouth Rock to San Francisco Bay and the frontier was closed. But in case those who lived in the West hadn’t noticed, the Census Bureau published another obituary after the 1900 census: with an average population of two people per square mile, the West was officially “settled.”
Some believed it. Western artist Frederic Remington wrote wistfully, “I knew the wild riders and vacant land were about to vanish forever … the end of three centuries of smoke and dust and sweat.”
Still, like many of its legendary outlaws and lawmen, the West refused to go down easily. Train and bank robberies, horseback posse chases and six-gun shootouts continued well into the twentieth century. Historians pushed the time of death for the Old West forward to 1920, coinciding with the end of the Mexican Revolution. But as a way of life, despite the eventual sparse web of paved roads, gasoline-powered vehicles and electrification, the West persisted. In every decade, social observers continued to note its dying flickers. Writers Zane Grey and Will James found it still taking shallow breaths in the 1920s and 1930s. Cormac McCarthy found a vanishing West set in the 1930s and 1940s. And Larry McMurtry, through his character Duane Moore, traces the slow death (or lingering life) of the West through the entire second half of the twentieth century, into the twenty-first.
The West lives. Despite the Walmarts and tourist information centers, the satellite dishes and Social Security, there remains a vital intrinsic West that is as it always was. Many of the attitudes, loyalties and animosities rooted in the Old West have only been fanned by the ensuing decades. In vast parts of the territory that was the historical West, there are no more residents today than there were in 1900; in many counties there are fewer. Across its vast horizon, between the larger communities that dot it, even the pockmarks of mining, timber-cutting, energy and water projects are diminished by scale. In many locations, the land features are immutable. Within the millions of acres of wilderness areas and yet unfenced country there are timeless places. You can still stand on a mountaintop and gaze across broad vistas to distant ridges. Or stare up at the same immense milky night sky that trail riders did a century ago. Or bear witness to a sunset indistinguishable from those that inspired Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.
Beyond the real West is the mythical West; the West of movies, books, song and video games; the West of enduring legend. It is the West that leads thousands of people every year to pull off the road and stand at the graves of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok. The West that draws millions of East Coasters and Midwesterners to vacations in the Mountain States, where they stay in accommodations with cowhide-upholstered sofas and elk-antler chandeliers. The West where the receding vibrations of a wild, audacious America still tickle the hair on the back of your neck.
It is real and it is mythical. And one sunny morning in May 1998, near the epicenter of Old West outlaw violence, it happened all over again: the guns; the killing; the posse chase and shootout; the escape into a vast wild country of sagebrush, box canyons and the occasional cowboy on horseback; Native American trackers; a grueling manhunt; and a populist outlaw disappearing into legend.
Such is Four Corners. As it was in 1898. As it remained a hundred years later.
Copyright © 2013 by Dan Schultz