Doorway to the Past: The Bush Knob Massacre and the Larn Wall

While I was visiting Fort Griffin I heard a story about a man called John Larn. He worked for Bill Hayes. In 1872 Hayes went to New Mexico with a herd of cattle expecting Larn to watch his stock at Fort Griffin.

Larn rebranded the cattle as his own. When Hayes got back he discovered Larn had stolen his cows so he hired men to steal them back. Larn in turn hired his own men to steal the cows back again and then tracked down Hayes and nine other men and killed them all.

Later, Larn built a home for his wife, Mary Matthews, south of Camp Cooper. By this time Larn was the sheriff of the town of Fort Griffin. Larn hired Irish brothers, stone masons, to build a fence. When it was finished, rather than pay the brothers, Larn killed them with his deputy and dumped the bodies into the Clear Fork of the Brazos.

In 1878 the same vigilantes Larn had led against Hayes rose up, hunted him down, arrested him as a cattle thief, and killed him.

This is what the Old West was like. This is why I don’t like the hoary cliches and maudlin romanticization of the west that have taken root in our culture.

We know what the west was like. We know exactly what the west was like. That’s what I want to write about. Other people can write about other things they think the west is about and that’s fine.

But this is the red plain upon which I work, and this is why I like working in the genre. It hasn’t even begun to be tapped for story potential.

I really believe this. Westerns have been around as long as the Old West itself, since Ned Buntline. And I am telling you we have just begun to scratch the surface as far as story potential goes.

We haven’t even begun.

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6 Comments

  1. spaceoperadiva

     /  November 25, 2011

    My dad, who was born in 1896, ran sheep in Wyoming. He had some interesting stories about cow re-branding.

    I thought I would share a family story with you. My dad married a widow with two half-grown daughters some time in his younger years, long before he married my mom. He had another daughter with the widow, bringing their ranch population up to 3 daughters and 3 adults, counting the one hired hand.

    One autumn, my dad, the hired hand, and his first wife were a bit late bringing the sheep down to winter pasture. So he sent the wife and the hired hand down to the railroad with the stock they were selling that year. They were supposed to meet the train, sell the stock, and then come back to help him move the rest of the flock back down to the main ranch.

    The wife and the hired hand sold the stock, jumped on the train and left my dad stranded with the bulk of the sheep with only a sheepherder’s teepee for shelter (http://www.blackfootcanvas.com/sheepherder-tepee-tents.htm). My dad’s wasn’t quite as fancy as the one at the website– no windows and the front door shut by way of four enormous clips, like the kind of thing you find on the end of a dog leash, only about 5 inches long.

    For one guy to move a few hundred sheep with only his horse and a couple of dogs for help was a painful undertaking. To make matters worse, my dad got snowed in somewhere between autumn pasture and winter pasture and didn’t make it home with the rest of the sheep until spring. I figure the only reason he survived the winter is because he was made of stubborn packaged in muscle and sinew. And nota bene– this means the 3 girls, two young teens and one preteen, spent all that winter alone at the ranch with no idea of what had happened to the adults.

    I think this was mid 1920s. Modern life took a while to catch up to Wyoming. It was still certainly the Wild West in the 20s and for a few more decades after.

    Reply
    • That is a fascinating story and I want to thank you very much for sharing it with me. And don’t be surprised if I steal it for an upcoming Haxan story, it is superb.

      But this is the kind of thing I like, these kinds of stories. This is the real west, not some whitewashed view. Thanks again for sharing this, I really do appreciate it. πŸ™‚

      Reply
      • spaceoperadiva

         /  November 25, 2011

        I’m sure my dad would love this story of his to be part of Haxan. He loved Westerns, Sci Fi and weird fiction very much.

        Reply
  2. Survival and toughness and raw brutality of natural elements and those moving through who did NOT wish you well and spilled your blood and that of your family: these aspects of the “Old West” certainly deserve your writerly attention. We need to know these truths about ourselves.

    Reply

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