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Beautiful, self-confident and hot tempered, “Queen” Ann Bassett stood up to Colorado’s powerful ranchers

Author Diana Allen Kouris sifts through Bassett's legend to find the facts behind one of the West's most intriguing characters during the 19th-century cattle wars

Award-winning author and historian Diana Allen Kouris grew up a cowgirl along the famed Outlaw Trail in the region where Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah converge.  Decades of research and writing have rendered Kouris an authority on the spellbinding history of the area.  She’s authored three nonfiction books including “The Romantic and Notorious History of Brown’s Park,” “Riding the Edge of An Era: Growing Up Cowboy on the Outlaw Trail,” and “Nighthawk Rising: A Biography of Accused Cattle Rustler Queen Ann Bassett of Brown’s Park.” Kouris is the 2020 recipient of the Spur Award from Western Writers of America for Best Western Biography. 

The following is an excerpt from “Nighthawk Rising.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for History

Excerpt from Chapter 16
“Becoming Queen Ann”

Ann Bassett’s maturity was unavoidably fastened to the many conflicts of the times, for they came seeping down the canyons, creeks, and trails of her valley to form layers of lasting sediment. Perhaps Ann had some premonition of the new evil set to move into her valley; plenty of signs foretold that Brown’s Park had an epic storm fermenting. Indeed, events past and those yet to come continued gathering into a phenomenon described as a perfect storm: a particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors.

On the other hand being back in her world of mountains and steers, it’s possible that Ann noticed little more than the booming of nighthawks in flight and her flirting affection for Mat Rash. Mat and Ann often attended parties and dances together. All eyes in the Park followed the compelling Ann Bassett, especially those of her suitor, Mat Rash, for she was now a twenty-one-year-old woman with beauty and poise. She was a cowgirl, and when she wished, elegant, in dress and movement.

Aided by the exposure of Wild West shows, cowgirls and cowgirl fashion were very popular. The widely promoted and marketed images showing young women no longer riding sidesaddle but sitting astride galloping horses while outfitted in western ranch attire suited and described Ann Bassett perfectly. She came of age in the middle of it all. She was stunningly beautiful on the back of a horse, and she seemed to know it. Proud and well-aware of her abilities, Ann sometimes came across as uppity. Her temper, which manifested so prominently after her mother’s death, didn’t soften much as she grew. 

Diana Allen Kouris.

Josie described her younger sister’s wrath to be terrible and, at times, uncontrollable. A combination of Ann’s temper and haughtiness initially earned her the title of “Queen.”

A group of young adults, friends of Ann’s as well as those of her brothers, commonly congregated at the Bassett Ranch and showed off their riding and roping skills. A cowhand began taunting Ann, joking about the way she rode. Some things Ann took in her stride; her talent for riding and roping were usually not among those things, for they were at her core. When the man took his mocking one word too far Ann angrily yanked off her fringed gauntlets and with the potency of fury, smacked the cowboy across the face. Rubbing his cheek the man said, “Well Queenie, at least you’ve got some spunk!” Ann berated the man with a contemptuous dressing-down. Nonetheless, the royal title suited Ann Bassett so well that it affixed itself to her as a budding legend that was planted and left to grow and evolve from that day forward.

Another day and a different circumstance caused an altered reaction from Ann. Kid Vaughn was an extremely good looking champion bronc rider. Ann was love-struck. One day in Maybell she rode among several cowboys, including handsome Vaughn. Sitting astride a beautiful but skittish horse, Ann was feeling the glory of showing off when Kid Vaughn suddenly took off his hat and threw it. The hat sailed, twirling to land under the belly of her gelding. Her edgy horse was waiting for that excuse: he jumped sideways before dropping his head between his legs, bucking, and sending Ann flying. No romance developed between the two but when speaking about that day Ann would smile before remarking, “If that had been anybody besides Kid Vaughn, I would have killed him!”

Ann’s complexion was flawless and her thick hair gleamed reddish brown. She learned early on from her mother’s regimen and continued to take immaculate care of her hair and skin. Ann’s sister, Josie, had a tiny waist and was more delicately built in every way than Ann, who was more rounded with a full bosom. Ann’s face had a softer, prettier tone than Josie’s and she carried a more charismatic impression. Josie, always serious-minded, was compared to a steam shovel in the way she went about her work while Ann was all about adventurous proficiency with horses and cattle.

“Nighthawk Rising” by Diana Allen Kouris.

When doing ranch work, Ann continued to most often dress in buckskin trousers or waist overalls with the bottoms of the pant legs tucked into the tops of her boots. Although it wasn’t often, she occasionally did take on the modern look of wearing a split riding skirt buttoned around her slim waist. With either style she wore a neck scarf, broad-brimmed hat, and a style of boot. Her hat had a slight curve in the brim and a crease down the center of the crown. Her ever-present buckskin gloves were either long-cuffed gauntlets or daintier riding gloves, depending on the weather and demands of the work.

While helping her three brothers, Sam, Eb, and George run the ranch, Ann rode a double rigged saddle with a tall saddle horn suitable to support a rope’s dally. Her coiled lariat sat attached to the right front saddlestrings and a pair of saddlebags rode behind the seat. A small bag rolled up in her slicker, also tied behind her saddle, contained personal items and a clean change of clothes.

If she was going to be on the range overnight she also carried a bedroll on her saddle. Ann very often had a rifle scabbard holding a rifle on the left side of her saddle and kept a small handgun in her saddlebags when riding. When traveling other than on horseback, she transferred the handgun to her carpetbag.

Ann was skilled at handling a bullwhip but only carried one on her saddle on certain occasions. However, she always rode with a shot-loaded leather quirt at the ready. The core of the quirt contained a leather bag filled with lead shot which gave important weight to the handle and aided in the quirt’s action and accuracy.

The leather popper on the other end was the noise maker. With the downward flick of her wrist Ann could “drop” the quirt to achieve the cracking pop. Other times she achieved the sound by slapping the quirt against the leg of her chaps. The sound was highly effective in either getting the startled attention of a misbehaving horse or, most often, in working and driving cattle.

Although not as influential politically as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, Colorado’s Little Snake River Stock Growers’ Association had sway over most of Routt County, which took in land of northwestern Colorado from the Utah line running east 127 miles and over fifty miles south from the Wyoming border. The authority of this association came from a collective of several large ranches including: Ora Haley’s Two-Bar operation; Charles E. “Charley” Ayer’s Bar L7 Ranch; Jeremiah Pierce and Joseph Reef’s Sevens Ranch; and Yampa Livestock (Two-Circle-Bar) belonging to Robert Cary and John S. Cary. In a continuing effort to dominate the range the Little Snake River Stock Growers’ Association put its focus on range interference caused by the menace of small ranches and cattle rustlers.

The highly successful foreman for Ora Haley’s Colorado holdings was a redheaded, blue-eyed cow man known as Hiram “Hi” Bernard. He ran the Two-Bar extension of the Haley Livestock and Trading Company. Ora Haley was proficient in hiring competent managers and the Texas man, Hi Bernard, whom he hired in 1896, was his best. Bernard headquartered at Haley’s recently acquired Salisbury and Major ranches located on the lower Little Snake River in Colorado, about thirty miles east of Brown’s Park but butting up against Brown’s Park range.

Hi Bernard was appointed to a cattlemen’s committee along with Charley Ayer and Wilford W. “Wiff” Wilson. Ayer was already employed by the Little Snake River Association as a stock detective and acted as a captain in the Association’s conflicts with sheep ranchers. Bernard, Ayer, and Wilson followed the committee’s directive to manage the range and oppose sheepmen and cattle rustlers.

Hi Bernard, his squared face ruggedly attractive but scarred by smallpox, rode into Brown’s Park and met with Mat Rash, president of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association, to make a deal. Bernard’s intention was to work out an agreement with Brown’s Park ranchers, who in his opinion were underutilizing their range. He proposed that the Brown’s Parkers simply run their cattle in common with the big outfits whereby the cattle would all be gathered in a general roundup. Everything, though, would be controlled by the big ranchers of the Little Snake River Stock Growers’ Association.

Bernard told Mat Rash and the members of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association that all they would have to do is come get their stock after it was gathered, with no expense to them. He was surprised to find that Brown’s Park wanted no part of his roundup or the concept of sharing the range. The Brown’s Park ranchers didn’t want to change the independent way in which they operated. They believed that if they didn’t hold back the encroaching mass of cattle their range would be grubbed out with no way of stopping it. According to Frank Willis, about getting the cold shoulder Hi Bernard said:

My offer was rejected with ceremonial courtesy. On that mission to Brown’s Park I did not meet Ann Bassett, but I received a letter from her soon afterwards, advising that neither me or the Haley outfit were desirable. And when, and if, it was necessary for me to visit Brown’s Park, would I please confine myself to road travel, for the tracks of Two-Bar horses, or cattle, were obnoxious.

Though Hi Bernard had not made the deal he wanted, he did reach an agreement concerning how Brown’s Park herds would stay separate. A territorial boundary line called the divide was designated along a distinctive limestone ridge between Vermillion Creek and Little Snake River. Brown’s Park cattle were to stay west of the divide and the Two-Bar cattle to the east. The association from Brown’s Park soon built a cabin near the divide where riders were based to assure Brown’s Park cattle didn’t cross over and that Two-Bar cattle were pushed back.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

About meeting Ann for the first time Hi Bernard said:

The following spring I was making a tour of range investigation on the remote Douglas Mesa section, and I met Ann Bassett riding alone; a smallish imp of a girl sitting straddle of a superb horse, and fitted as if she had grown there.

She was dressed in at least one gun, and reminded me of tales I had heard about the equally romantic, and lovable, Sitting Bull, mopping up at the Little Big Horn. My hands wanted to reach for something high overhead. I restrained them with difficulty and introduced myself, and spluttered about the number of lobos inhabiting the range country. I got a salty reply that gave me the idea that grey wolves were natives, and belonged, while I was nothing but a worm crawling out of bounds.

Ann didn’t know the power this man with whom she was so dismissive would hold over her life. She was young, easily rankled, and obsessively protective of Brown’s Park and its surrounding range.

The Brown’s Park ranchers, though, exuded the unfortunate impression of being self-important and not cooperative, providing an easy next step for members of the Little Snake River Association to take action. Ora Haley, Hi Bernard, Charley Ayer, John C. Coble, and Wiff Wilson met in Ora Haley’s office in Denver. Charley Ayer and Wiff Wilson specifically named Mat Rash and Jim McKnight as being the lead rustlers. They strongly condemned the valley of Brown’s Park as a hangout for outlaws and rustlers. Either during this meeting or sometime soon after, Ann and Eb Bassett, the Davenports, and Longhorn Thompson were also disparaged by these men as suspected rustlers.  

According to Hi Bernard, Tom Horn was hired by the appointed Cattlemen’s Committee and given free hand to make a thorough investigation of conditions in Brown’s Park. Horn was to be paid five hundred dollars for every cattle thief he killed.

It was thirty-nine years earlier that Tom Horn’s dark journey to Brown’s Park began. He was born November 21, 1860, free of life’s persuasions and innocent of all that he would one day become. As he worked his way through life his ventures were varied, convoluted, and impressive. Each inched him onward from the affection-deadening harshness of his childhood to a life of an unashamed assassin capable of unbridling a sad wickedness in Ann Bassett’s life.

By January 1900 Tom Horn was employed by the Little Snake River Stock Growers’ Association to infiltrate Brown’s Park. Members of the Association who directed Horn held pious justification for disdain. Brown’s Park, after all, was well-known to be a notorious nest that sanctified train and bank robbers, murder, hangings, escaped convicts, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and imagined no-accounts of every other sort.

The Association knew that in 1894 Mat Rash, now the president of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association, was accused of unlawfully taking and driving away a branded steer from Nelson Morris. Mat was summoned by the judge to appear at Hahn’s Peak where he was charged with grand larceny and then ordered to post $250 bond. However, all charges were ultimately dropped by the prosecution and there was never a trial. The incident was likely seen as evidence against Mat Rash. Whether or not there was any truth to the accusation was of less concern.

Members of the Association were also aware that Justice of the Peace J.S. Hoy frequently referred to his neighbors, the Bassetts, as a gang. Hoy was often at his writing desk penning letters to newspapers about the lawlessness in Brown’s Park.

No matter to the Association or its Cattlemen’s Committee that the actual residents of Brown’s Park combatted, worried over, and grieved about such things. No matter that they rode side-by-side with lawmen in posses while sometimes enduring dreadful conditions and sacrifice. No matter that J.S. Hoy was brilliant but troubled and eccentric and always spoke of each member of the Bassett family, individually, with high regard. None of it mattered now, for the shadowy detective and outlaw hunter Tom Horn was on his way, and the perfect storm was congealing.

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