No. 9 Vengeance Was She

Chaparral “Manzanita” Shrub

Folks in town already took up a collection to erect a marker at the site of the shootout. The Riparian Irrigation Club wanted to proclaim the incident “The Capay Valley Stand-Off.” Locals who traded at Black’s Station called it a downright massacre. Big cattle declared war against the homesteaders living on parcels where the sweet-grasses grew. Clashes over land and water rights took place throughout the winter of 1870. The struggle yielded no victors, only heartache.

Marshal Frank Kegan and seven men rode to the Kettner place situated in Hungry Hollow. The Kettner family came overland from Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley to claim their 160-acre parcel in California, where they raised vegetable garden and a few head of cattle with the “K Dot” brand. The Marshal was out delivering eviction notices petitioned by the Ramage Land, Water & Stock Company. Kegan did not realize he would encounter a funeral that grey February morning.

Mourners gathered from Capay Valley and the nearby town of Esparto to pay their respects to Lilly Kettner, daughter of Carl and Rebecca. The ten-year-old was killed in a stampede set off by a dynamite blast at the Ames Ditch headgate. The ditch belonged to Jarred “Jake” Ames, who diverted water from nearby Cache Creek, to irrigate his Chilean clover fields east of the Kettner’s property. Ames suspected the explosions were part of an intimidation campaign waged by the Ramage Land, Water & Stock Company against him.

Parson Trimble and Ed Hooton from Black’s Station were on hand to conduct the memorial service. The President of the Capay Valley Anti-Riparian Club, Mr. Reardon, was also in attendance to offer his condolences. So were the other farming families—the Ames’, the Berrelleza’s, the Morton’s, and the Scruggs’. The countenance on the attendee’s faces was long and hard.

Ames’ wife, Maggie, helped Mrs. Kettner to prepare Lilly’s broken body for burial. Lilly was laid out on the kitchen table. They wrapped a handkerchief under her chin and tied her ankles together before rigor mortis set in so she would better fit in her coffin. Rebecca Kettner bathed her daughter. Lilly’s body was covered with cuts and bruises, her bones crushed in some places, her hair caked with mud. The mother wiped away the dirt and dried blood with soap and water, cleansing every portion of the poor girl’s remains.

After hunting through Lilly’s chest of drawers, Maggie returned to the table with the perfect dress adorned with a bow on the collar. She assisted Mrs. Kettner to rotate the body to ornate it the garment. Rebecca sighed at how long-limbed her daughter had become in her final year.

“I should have kept her closer,” Rebecca grieved. “I should’ve—”

Recognizing a mother’s suffering soul, Maggie endeavored to bring her neighbor back to the task at hand. “I wonder,” she asked, “if we should do something special with her hair?”

“Lilly always disliked me fussing with it. But, I guess it don’t matter now. No. Let it be.”

“Why, of course, Mrs. Kettner. It looks pretty down.”

Maggie put the “braided hair half penny” coins on the deceased girl’s eyes and covered her face with a turpentine cloth. This left the mother with an awful sense of finality.  Rebecca’s entire body convulsed in a flood tears. The year before, she buried her youngest daughter in the Nebraska Territory; now, her precocious Lilly was masked, ready to join her sister in the great hereafter.

“You should sit,” Maggie suggested.

“I wish to meet those responsible,” Rebecca said, with icy grey-green eyes.” Mrs. Ames had not experienced the pain of losing a child, and Rebecca believed her neighbor would not understand her feelings of vengeance in her heart.

“I’ll make us some tea,” Maggie said, leaving the table to fetch a kettle.

When it was time to bury the child, Rebecca watched Jake Ames, and the other menfolk lift the small, narrow box onto the buckboard. Carl asked Mr. Ames to watch over his family while he was away in San Antonio. It fell upon Ames to fashion a proper coffin for the girl, cutting planks from local timber.

When Rebecca Kettner agreed to come west with Carl, she did not foresee spending so many of her days on her own. She got along fine without him during the long absences. But, what if he gets himself kil’t and never comes back? Rebecca hated being abandoned in California, which is why she sent her son, Caleb, to fetch his pa when he failed to show at Hall’s Station.

True his word, Mr. Ames lent a hand whenever he could. Having another man at her disposal made Rebecca uneasy. He wore a muddy-colored ten-gallon hat and possessed a big-hearted, gregarious nature. Ames laughed at his own jokes in a high pitch like a boar readied to be dressed. That is when he wasn’t raving about quarrels he had with Mr. Morton over water rights.

Ames constructed his ditch with assets he took from a Mother Lode strike in ’49, ’52, and ’52. In turn, he helped the Kettner’s dig a crude system of trenches to flood their garden furrows. James Morton owned the competing “Woodland Ditch” to irrigate his alfalfa on Reardon Ranch in the Sacramento Valley Basin. During certain seasons, it became apparent there was not enough water for the farmers downstream. Setting aside their differences, the feuding neighbors joined forces against another assault like the one made on the Ames headworks.

The funeral procession left the farmstead at eleven o’clock and stretched out along the road. Mr. Ames took the reins of the driving horse harnessed to the wagon carrying Lilly to the burial site. Lilly was to be laid to rest beyond the Manzanita grove, a short distance from the K Dot Ranch. Mrs. Kettner walked next to Parson Trimble. The clergyman held the Good Book in front of him for the flock to follow.

When the mourners had all gathered around, Parson Trimble led them in prayer. Mrs. Kettner felt a tightening in her throat and feared she might faint. “Weren’t my Lilly worthy of the Lord’s attention?” she whispered.

Jake Ames steadied Rebecca from her uncontrollable shaking. He provided words of encouragement. “Unto himself, the Lord receiveth your daughter today.” She sniffled, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand. The depths of her grief seemed without end.

Ames offered a handkerchief, taking the liberty of wiping away the drips. No man, not her father nor her husband, had ever done that before. Maggie Ames took note of the way their husband doted on Rebecca. Every time Mr. Ames smiled upon her, he revealed himself. Rebecca sensed the mixed emotions behind his wife’s pursed lipped smile.

After Parson Trimble’s closing words, “Our dearest hast left a lasting mark upon, let us go in peace,” and the fiddler from the Odd Fellows Hall commenced to playing “In the Sweet By-and-By.” The assembly sang the verses of the hymn until a thunder of hooves interrupted the dirge.

James Morton recognized Frank Kegan’s flat crown black hat with the wide brim. A buzz telegraphed through the crowd of mourners faster than the Western Union. Though he wore a badge, Keegan was notorious for doing the bidding of wealthy ranchers. Mr. Ames warned the men to get their womenfolk and young’uns hid in the Manzanitas.

Mr. Ames was alarmed to find Mrs. Kettner still standing by the gravesite. Ames shouted for her to get down as the horsemen arrived. The grief-stricken mother was too troubled to sense the danger surrounding her. Rebecca stood behind the overturned buckboard, as the men readied their pistols. There were but a few weapons between them, not counting Parson Trimble’s Bible and the shovel Ed Hooton brung with him to fill the hole.

The Marshal was the first to ride in, revolver drawn. Kegan wore a wine-colored serge coat and mean-looking mustachio. His eyes glinted about, assessing the gun barrels aimed in his direction. With two quick blasts of his six-shooter, Marshal Kegan fired on two townspeople, who, despite their best aim, could not hit the lawman atop his moving stallion. Both defenders crumpled to the ground behind the upturned wagon.

Mr. Ames signaled for the locals to commence firing.

Screaming horses reared up in the open volley of gunfire. One horse threw its rider, who got hung up in the stirrups and was dragged for several yards by the roan.

Amidst the smoke and the dust and the lead flying in the air, a well-dressed man with a gold chain pocket watch waved his arms to stop the hostility. Rebecca recognized the man as the lawyer, Tennyson Beal, that called on her a week before, claiming she illegally squatted on her land. Rebecca aimed both barrels of her shotgun at the unwelcome trespasser to make it clear she had no interest in what he came to peddle. On the day of the conflict, Jake Ames urged his neighbors to hang fire, allowing the man to plead his case. Rebecca’s eyes widened. Wasn’t this the not to be trusted scoundrel Mr. Ames had warned against? When the lawyer, Tennyson Beal, cleared his throat to speak. It was the same Tom Foolery as before: The Ramage Land, Water & Stock Company had put a lien on the land and reckoned to impose a levy on farmers for the right to irrigate their crops. He had drawn up agreements in his saddlebags for everyone to sign.

Alonso Berrelleza, who raised 1,000 head of cattle in the valley, answered the lawyer with buckshot, spraying the toes of his boots with red soil. His cousin, Nemicio, was lynched while guarding his family lands one night in ’56.

Tennyson Beal warned anyone refusing to cooperate that they were defying a court order. He held up the writ to prove his point.

“The waters flow freely from the Blue Ridge. You have no right to sell what you don’t own.” Señor Berrelleza said.

“Better put them papers away,” the owner of the Woodland Ditch, Mr. Morton, said, “before somebody with better aim puts a hole in ‘em. And, in you too!”

While the lawyer’s arguments did not persuade, he did succeed in creating a lull in the exchange of gunfire for a time. Frank Kegan and his men seized the opportunity to spread out and survey the Manzanita grove, discovering what lay hidden there.

Though Jarred Ames boasted fighting Ute Indians in the Utah Territory, he never had any formal military training. In his haste to send the women and children to safety, he failed to appreciate the tactical advantages of choosing the right ground. Mr. Ames allowed Kegan’s raiders to come between the men and their families. More shrub than tree, the spindly Manzanita trees did not conceal even the smallest child.

A cold sheet of rain fell as women and children bounded and wriggled like rabbits trying to escape the clutches of snarling wolves. Troubled as for what to do next, the menfolk panicked.

Husbands and fathers of the exposed and defenseless wandered out from behind their fortifications and shot haphazard at the attackers, endangering loved ones caught in the line-of-fire. Rebecca was sick at heart.

But the settlers of Capay Valley refused to relent and fought on. One of Kegan’s men wandered on foot too close to a small outcropping of rocks. He was the unfortunate marauder who had been thrown from his horse. He was still missing a boot when Mr. Reardon stood up from behind the rocks with his .58 caliber Springfield Rifle and put the intruder out of his misery.

Nearby, Ed Hooton hit a member of the posse with the blade of his long-handled shovel. The blow at the base of the skull stopped the wild-eyed brute, snap-crack, from carrying off one of Señor Berrelleza’s niños.

Laura Lee Morton was in the nick of time to rescue her four-year-old. A rider charged into the small clearing, where she had retreated. Mrs. Morton was slashed by the rider’s spur’s rowel, as she bent down to scoop up the child.

The women and the children shuddered with each concussion from the gun blasts. In full view of the combatants, Maggie Ames huddled together with her four children. The frightened family seemed to melt into the ground in the barrage exploding around them.

Now, it was Mr. Ames waving his arms to stop the conflict. Ames challenged the man in charge to a duel to settle the dispute and prevent further bloodshed. Mrs. Kettner took stock of the stranger he called out, “William Ramage.” At first glance, Ramage was unimposing: smooth-skinned, plump, and not at all tall. It was rumored he pushed aside his ailing father in a ruthless takeover of the family business. Jake Ames suspected that the heir to the cattle empire was the one who ordered the destruction of his property. Rebecca could see the cruelty in Ramage’s unblinking eyes. They were trained on Mr. Ames, fumbling to load shells into the cylinder of his revolver.

Mr. Ramage agreed to the duel and swung a boot over the horn of his saddle to dismount. Parson Trimble forgot his station in life and pulled a Colt-Dragoon out from behind his Bible to cover his Mr. Ames. Ramage rolled his six-shooter and coolly laid the preacher out—pages of the Good Book turning in the wind.

Ramage leaped down from his horse and kicked the body sprawled on the ground, making sure God’s avenging angel was dead. He put another bullet in the parsons’ chest to make sure. Mr. Ames stood stupefied, his half-loaded gun hanging at his side. He seemed to lose his nerve. How could this happen? Rebecca thought.

Satisfied he drained the life out of the uprising, William Ramage holstered his gun and turned to retrieve his horse.

Rebecca rushed to the fallen man, clasping her hands over his, and as if inspired by the heavens, she quoted Revelation 12:9, “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth….”

Ramage whipped around to see a blast from the six-inch barrel of the Dragoon.

“That’s for the underhanded way you kil’t our preacher,” Rebecca said, winging the cattleman in the shoulder from ten yards away.

The force of bullet knocked Ramage to his knees. Rebecca remained steely-eyed, as the wounded man went for his pistol. Again, she pulled the trigger of the multi-shot pistol, this time hitting the murderer in the throat. “And, that un’s for my Lilly.”

The cattle baron’s blood pooled on the ground, like the water flowing out of the Ames Ditch.

Frank Kegan holstered his revolver. “Mount up,” he said to what was left of the posse. “The price has been paid.” Kegan’s terms were that he be paid in advance. William Ramage was shot, the job was over.

The rain weighed heavily on everyone’s will to fight on. Dazed family men wandered across the sodden knoll to reunite with survivors and search for their dead. James Morton carried the trampled body of his four-year-old from the grove. Alonso Berrelleza borrowed Ed Hooton’s shovel to knock down the Manzanita branches to search for his missing niños.

Rebecca watched William Ramage twitch a spell before dropping her sights. Tennyson Beal rode by on his chestnut, hat in hand, for a departing word. “Begging your pardon, ma’am,” he began.

She tightened her jaw and glared up at the man who had done the legal groundwork to cheat her from her farmstead and her neighbors from their water rights.

“I am truly sorry for the devastation visited upon you today,” he continued.

Rebecca was not in a forgiving mood. “My God has answered, sir. You have not yet begun to feel the might of His wrath.”

In total, fourteen people were killed that morning. The valley’s inhabitants suffered ten casualties, four of whom were children. Maggie Ames now mourned two of her own children slain.

The champion of the Capay Valley incident turned her back on the fancy lawyer. The powerful men who coveted the K Dot Ranch had suffered a setback. Tennyson Beal checked the time on his pocket watch and neck-reined his horse in the direction of Sacramento.

In Ed Hooton’s judgment, the incident should have been commemorated as “Rebecca’s Revenge,” on account of the remarkable courage and fortitude she exhibited. She did what needed to be done, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The station keeper, who witnessed her bravery first hand, lobbied all who traded at his store. Politics being what they are, the marker erected by the Anti-Riparian Club failed to capture Mrs. Kettner’s deeds at Hungry Hollow or mention her by name. In those years, the Suffrage Movement had not yet caught on.

~~~ o0~~~

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No. 8 To Bedrock Jim’s Surprise

Illustration by Charles M. Russell
Illustration by Charles M. Russell

Western painter and storyteller Charles M. Russell tells a story about a couple of prospectors he knew. Bedrock Jim was working a claim in the Big Horn high country with his partner, Pick Axe Jack. And, it dawned on them that they were out of meat for suppertime. So, they went hunting. Not far from camp, Bedrock caught sight of a fine elk with large, pitchforked antlers. He got off a shot with his Henry and dropped the bull. The two men strode over to admire the prize, leaning their rifles up against a fallen log.

Standing over the 800-pound animal—rolled over on its side—Bedrock Jim could see a spot of blood on its neck. Thinking that the neck was broken, Bedrock grabbed a horn to straighten it out so that he could make a proper cut to the throat with his knife. But the elk got to its feet, still very much alive, and went after Jim. The bull was fighting mad and the two men were at once embroiled in a mighty struggle. To their misfortune, their guns rested on the wrong side of the angry elk.

Exhausted and unable to subdue the beast, Bedrock Jim scampered up a scrub of pine growing near a rocky ledge. The small tree was not tall enough to accommodate both men, so Pick Axe found sanctuary in a paltry hole beneath the ledge. Read more