As a young ranch hand, my mornings typically began the same. After eating breakfast at a table outside the bunkhouse, I would saddle my horse and ride to the nearby fields to inspect the cattle herd. The O'Sullivan family for whom I was employed owned a small, 1,600-acre ranch near Wide River, Colorado and they typically had 100 to 125 head of cattle grazing on their property at any one time. They were not a wealthy family, but their ranch was well run and financially viable. They were hard working people who lived a well-deserved, comfortable lifestyle. They were good to their employees and most of their small staff had been with them for several years. I, for example, was into my third year at the O'Sullivan ranch and I was saving my money as best I could. Hopefully, in a few years, I would have accumulated enough money to purchase a small homestead of my own. Once I was established and settled on my own land, I hoped to find a good woman who would settle down with me and start a family. This was an ambitious plan, no doubt, but I was confident that it was achievable. All things considered, I believed that my plan was reasonably close to being on schedule.
As I rode into the fields that morning and studied the herd, I had to assume that a few steers were missing. This was the usual situation as the ranch contained few fences and the cattle were allowed to roam freely throughout the day. Remarkably, they usually stayed in the general vicinity of the main pasture and were not too difficult to monitor. Sometimes at night, however, steers might wander off in the dark and become disoriented. The following morning, any strays would have to be located and led back to the main herd. The O'Sullivan cattle were clearly branded, and it was unusual for a loose steer not to be found. We had every expectation of quickly finding all of today's strays and bringing them home. This task would typically require no more than a couple hours of our time.
I quickly began this task and before long, I had located a loose steer's tracks and had begun following him toward the northern end of the O'Sullivan property. He was following the same route that wandering steers often took. I followed the tracks to a ridge located approximately a quarter mile beyond the property line of the ranch. The top of this ridge was located on federal property. From this vantage point, I could easily view a wide area and I quickly spotted the steer in a small clearing located a short distance away. I would have him roped and in my custody in a few minutes. Leading him back to the herd would not be difficult. As I continued to survey the panorama before me, I was surprised to see unexpected activity about a mile or so to the northeast. The exact location was the intersection of two roads, simply called the crossroads by the people who lived in the area. The Fort Collins Highway went from the town of Wide River in the west toward Fort Collins in the east. Wyoming Road went toward the Wyoming Territory in the north and Millington in the south. Neither road was particularly busy by urban standards although they were used extensively by residents of the region. Supply wagons to the area mines often used these roads. The twice weekly stagecoach from Fort Collins to Wide River traveled on the Fort Collins Highway. Occasionally, a patrol of the U.S. Calvary might be seen on either of these roads, travelling in one direction or another.
As I watched the activity at the crossroads, I counted four riders on horseback. I recognized one of the riders although I did not know him by name. He worked on the Freeman ranch, a much larger property encompassing almost 5,000 acres. It was owned by Hank Freeman, a man of questionable character who was not well regarded by most members of the community. Freeman had had disagreements with several of his neighbors through the years and he was suspected of having ordered violent acts from time to time against them. Most recently, he had been contesting water rights with the neighboring ranch to his east. Although there had been no violence to date, the tone of their disagreement was becoming increasingly ugly. The local sheriff was attempting to mediate the situation as best he could. I wondered what the men at the crossroads might be doing, but I did not have time to idly sit in my saddle and watch them. Leaving my position atop the ridge, I rode down the trail until I came upon the loose steer and captured him with my rope. Once I had him contained and subdued, I slowly began leading him back up the ridge toward our shared destination, the O'Sullivan ranch. My horse and I led the way with the steer following closely behind. The trip home was expected to take no more than half an hour.
As we reached the top of the ridge, I decided to stop and rest for a few minutes before proceeding further. Almost immediately, I realized that the four riders were still engaged in their activity at the crossroads. As I curiously watched them from the distance, I slowly began to suspect what they were doing. Could it be that they were planning to rob the stagecoach on its next run between Fort Collins and Wide River? Tomorrow was the last day in June and the stagecoach was scheduled to run the following day, July 1. It would be carrying the monthly payroll money from Denver for many of the mines in the area. It appeared that the four riders might be doing a practice run, wanting to make certain that their robbery would be executed quickly and efficiently without mistakes. They obviously wanted their heist to be successful and they certainly did not want to get caught. It never occurred to them that someone might be watching as they rehearsed their crime in that isolated location. I had no way of knowing exactly how long they had been practicing that morning. Less than ten minutes after I had begun watching them, I saw them gather for one last conversation before riding away together in the direction of the Freeman ranch. Once they were gone, I knew that I needed to get back to the O'Sullivan ranch as quickly as possible. I was anxious to tell Sean O'Sullivan exactly what I had seen. I was confident that he would want to alert the sheriff.
Early that afternoon, I was sitting in the sheriff's office in Wide River along with Sean O'Sullivan, the sheriff and two sheriff's deputies. They asked me to describe in detail what I had observed at the crossroads that morning. When I finished speaking, the sheriff and the deputies asked me several specific questions, all of which I appeared to answer to their satisfaction. The law enforcement officers agreed that I had probably stumbled upon a serious crime in its planning, and they decided that a counter plan needed to be developed and implemented at once. They agreed that July 1 was probably the criminals target date for their intended robbery.
The outlaws plan, as best as I could determine, was to have two men on horseback positioned on the Fort Collins Highway just east of the intersection. One rider would have a pistol drawn while the other rider would be pointing a rifle at the stagecoach driver. Once the stagecoach had stopped, two more men on horseback would ride out of the trees beside the road and assume positions behind the stagecoach. They would also be wielding rifles that would be pointed at the driver and the security guard sitting beside the driver on the front seat. They would also make sure that no passengers inside the stagecoach would attempt to interfere. The outlaws had developed a sound plan that would probably have been effective against an unsuspecting target. However, once law enforcement understood the specifics of the plan, it would not be too difficult for them to devise an effective counter measure of their own. They had almost two full days to prepare such a plan. They intended to be ready with it.
Late in the morning on July 1, the sheriff and his entourage laid their trap for the stagecoach robbers. In addition to the sheriff and his two fulltime deputies, five other men were deputized to assist in the operation. Near the crossroads, the sheriff and a deputy on horseback were stationed beside the Fort Collins Highway, one-tenth of a mile west of the intersection. Two additional pairs of men were stationed beside Wyoming Road with one pair located one-tenth of a mile north of the intersection and one pair located one-tenth of a mile south of it. Two additional men on horseback were hidden in the trees beside the Fort Collins Highway approximately one-quarter mile east of the intersection with Wyoming Road. Finally, two Colorado Rangers would be sitting inside the stagecoach. No other passengers would be traveling on the stagecoach that afternoon. As the law enforcement officers assembled and hid in the vicinity of the crossroads, Sean O'Sullivan and I took a position atop the nearby ridge, approximately a mile away. From that vantage point, we would be able to witness the event without being noticed by any of the participants. We would also be well out of the range of the anticipated gunfire that was almost certain to erupt.
About two o'clock that afternoon, the four outlaws arrived at the crossroads and made a quick survey of the general area. The lawmen were well concealed by this time and the outlaws did not discover their presence. Minutes later, the four of them assumed their own hiding spots, the same places that I had observed them occupying during their practice session two days earlier. Soon they were hidden from view, and they remained hidden thereafter. Almost an hour later, Sean O'Sullivan and I could see the dust from the stagecoach in the air in the distance as it progressed through the Colorado countryside and approached the vicinity of the crossroads. The air was thick with anticipation as we awaited the stagecoach's arrival at its place of destiny. We were anxious to witness what was about to happen. I could not begin to imagine the tension that the men hiding among the trees below must have been feeling at that moment.
As the stagecoach neared the crossroads, two masked riders suddenly rode out from the trees and assumed their positions on horseback in the roadway just a short distance east of the intersection with Wyoming Road. The stagecoach slowed down and soon came to a complete stop as the road was now blocked by the bandits. At this time, the other two masked riders come out from behind the trees and took their positions atop their horses directly behind the stagecoach. The outlaws' plan was developing exactly as I has previously watched it practiced. It was at this point that their detailed plan began to unravel.
"Put up your hands," ordered the lead outlaw as he waved his pistol at the stagecoach driver sitting beside the security guard. The driver dropped the horses' reins and lifted his hands into the air. The security guard was slower to react, perhaps trying to decide if he wanted to try shooting one of the bandits with his rifle. The lead outlaw's partner wasted no time. He pointed his rifle at the security guard and quickly pulled the trigger, shooting the man in the chest. The guard dropped his rifle upon his receipt of the bullet. The impact caused him to jolt backwards in his seat before he tumbled off the stagecoach and hit the dirt road below. I assumed that the man was dead before his body hit the ground.
"Give me the cashbox," the lead outlaw instructed the driver. "Now! Do we have to shoot you, too? Hurry up!"
The driver pulled the cashbox from the space where the security guard had previously rested his feet. Without waiting for further instructions, he dropped the cashbox over the side of the stagecoach and watched it as it landed on the ground directly beside the outlaw's horse.
"Get your ass down here and pick up the cashbox," the lead outlaw ordered the driver. "Then lift it up to me."
The driver did exactly as he was told. Retrieving the cashbox, he lifted it to the lead outlaw who proceeded to grab it and hoist it onto his saddle. It was heavy, obviously containing a quantity of gold and silver coins as well as paper currency.
Once they had the money in their possession, the outlaws had no further need of the driver. The man had witnessed the murder of the security guard. He was a liability that the gang needed to eliminate. There was no benefit in keeping him alive.
"Kneel down," the lead outlaw ordered the driver.
The driver was frozen in fear, unable to obey the outlaw's order.
"Kneel down," the lead outlaw ordered again, this time in a quieter, colder tone of voice. "Otherwise, I'll shoot you right where you're standing." To add emphasis to his command, he pointed his pistol at the driver's head and cocked the gun.
The driver slowly knelt onto the dirt road expecting to soon be losing his life. He wondered if he would hear the gun fire before the bullet entered his head and killed him.
Inside the stagecoach, the Colorado Rangers were carefully monitoring the events that were transpiring outside. It had now become apparent that the stagecoach driver was about to be executed just beside the stagecoach door. The lead outlaw obviously had no idea as to the identity of the passengers inside the stagecoach. He only knew that he could not risk leaving any witnesses to today's crimes alive. The rangers were certain that the man would be coming for the stagecoach passengers next. The ranger sitting closest to the door beside the kneeling driver pulled his pistol from its holster and as inconspicuously as possible, pointed it through the open window at the mounted outlaw. The man was leaning over in his saddle, holding onto the cashbox as he pointed his own gun at the head of the helpless driver. Before the outlaw could pull the trigger of his gun, the ranger pulled the trigger of his. The bullet from close range hit the outlaw on the side of his head, mortally wounding him. The outlaw and the cashbox fell from the horse's saddle, hitting the ground simultaneously. The man was dead, there was no doubt about this whatsoever.
Upon hearing the gunshot from the ranger's pistol, the lawmen on horseback left their various hiding places and converged on the stagecoach in the road. The outlaws positioned behind the stagecoach lifted their rifles and began to shoot at the arriving lawmen. Their shots missed their targets while promptly drawing return fire from several different locations. One of the outlaws was knocked from his saddle as a rifle shot hit him from close range. His partner dropped his gun to the ground and raised his hands in surrender. The remaining outlaw who had partnered with the lead outlaw attempted to flee to the west only to discover that he was hopelessly surrounded as the lawmen converged. He quickly dropped his rifle and raised his hands in the air. Within minutes, the two surviving outlaws were arrested, handcuffed and placed inside the stagecoach. Accompanied by the two Colorado Rangers, they would be transferred to the jail in Wide River where they would be charged with the robbery of the stagecoach and the murder of the security guard. I suspected that they would be tried quickly in a court of law and then hanged as punishment for their crimes. The other two outlaws had already been confirmed dead at the scene.
Later that evening and over the next couple of days, the captured outlaws provided the sheriff with detailed information on some of the violent crimes that had previously been committed in the area. They claimed that these crimes had been instigated by Hank Freeman as had that week's stagecoach robbery near the crossroads. Whether or not their cooperation might spare them from the gallows would be a matter for a judge to decide. I suspected that this information might be enough to save them from such a fate. Their live testimonies would be necessary should the local prosecutor seek to try Hank Freeman for any of the crimes for which he was now being accused. At the very least, it was obvious that he had been harboring criminals on his property. It would be interesting to see if a man of Hank Freeman's wealth and stature would be held accountable for any of his past actions. I was hopeful that he would be.
Weeks later, I was surprised to learn that the payroll company had issued me an award for my assistance in thwarting the theft of their cashbox during the July 1 attempted stagecoach robbery. I added the award money to my modest savings account at the bank and I now had enough money to begin the process of looking for a small homestead to purchase. It would probably take some time for me to locate the ideal place. Meanwhile, I planned to continue working for the O'Sullivan family for the immediate future. Although I was sorry that the security guard had lost his life, I was proud to have been of assistance to the sheriff in bringing the outlaws to justice. It felt good to have rendered this service to my community. I liked the Wide River area and I intended to always reside there. It was where I planned to raise my family.