I love legends of the Old West, and especially its ghost legends: spectral cowboys, Native American maidens, riders who vanished, abound in its lore. West Texas’s Brewster County, part of the Big Bend National Park and home to the Los Chisos mountain range, is a rich source of legends and ghostly tales. One such is told to this day: the story of a ghost bull with the word “MURDER” and the date January 20, 1891 (in some accounts, 1896) branded on its side.
In this case, the legend does have some basis in fact. Certainly the murder of Henry H. Powe, a one-armed veteran of the Confederate Army and prominent Brewster County rancher, by cattle agent Finus “Fine” Gilliland is a fact, as is Gilliland’s death a week later when he tried to shoot it out with a Brewster County deputy sheriff and a Texas Ranger who were attempting to arrest him. Neither Powe nor Gilliland returns in ghostly form, though; only the yearling bull they fought over does.
Although this practice was becoming less common by the 1890s, much of the area in Brewster County was still open range for ranchers and herds then. Every so often, the locals would hold a “cow gather”—what we, schooled in movie westerns, now refer to as a “roundup”—at which time mavericks (unbranded stock) would be taken into various herds and branded accordingly.
Powe and his son Robert were working with their herd; Gilliland, who represented absentee ranchers, was working with another, when the trouble began. A year-old brindle bull calf had been following a cow branded with Powe’s HHP brand, and Powe drove the young maverick in with his herd to be branded as his. Gilliland, however, was having none of this; he insisted that the Powes produce a cow who was indisputably the mother of the yearling, and attempted to drive it off from Powe’s herd.
Powe and Gilliland had words over the bull calf. Nobody was close enough to overhear them, but they apparently were unforgivable. Powe, who couldn’t fire a rifle thanks to being one-armed, borrowed a pistol from another cowboy and rode toward Gilliland, who was trying to rope the yearling. Powe apparently meant to kill the young bull, but he missed. Gilliland dismounted, carefully aimed his rifle, and shot at Powe—and also missed. Neither of the two could hit the broad side of a barn, it seems, for they took several shots at each other, missing each time, until Powe’s borrowed pistol jammed, at which point Gilliland closed in, put his barrel against Powe’s chest, and fired directly into his heart. Powe was dead before he hit the ground, and Gilliland remounted and was on the run.
And here is where the legend begins: for it’s said that the shocked and outraged cowboys grabbed the yearling bull that was the innocent cause of all the ruckus and branded it with the word MURDER, in letters a foot high, followed by the date.
Gilliland met his fate a week later. Powe is buried in his hometown of Alpine, his killer near Snyder, Texas.
As for Murder, the young bull, the legend says he was set free to roam the Texas plains, and that it was an omen of bad blood and death to see him, for invariably, after such a sighting, cowboys would quarrel, quarrels led to gunplay, and death ended the dispute.
And to this day, there are reports of sightings of Murder. Nowadays he’s often described as black or red, and is seen silhouetted against the full moon, his infamous brand blazing like it was still on fire.
I was surprised to find, while researching this story (which I first read, I think, in Jeff Rovin’s The Spirits of America, a long time ago), that Murder and his legend inspired a song by folksinger Ian Tyson. The story has been told also in a Gene Autry comic book from the 1940s, by the legendary Texas storyteller J. Frank Dobie, and others.
For more information, see this account by C. F. Eckhardt.
It seems that, in real life, Murder had a more prosaic ending, dying as a member of the Powe herd around 1905. But I willingly admit that I agree with the memorable line with which the newspaper editor dismisses Rance Stoddard’s wish to tell the truth about the identity of the outlaw’s killer in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”