Rode for the Purple Mask
Written for Frontier Times by Marjorie Rogers, Marlin, Texas
[From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, January, 1928]
“THE FIRST TIME that I ever saw Billy the Kid was in Fort Griffin, where he wandered with six other fellows and struck me for a loan of $15,” said Henry Ethridge. ex-cowboy and member of the Purple Mask. a protective and detective association of the early eighties, which had about the same rights as the Texas Rangers, to locate and punish cattle rustlers along the Mexican border.
"Fort Griffin was an old army and trading post in Shackelford County. The Government was taking care of a band of friendly Tonkawa Indians near the Fort at this time. There were no railroads, and cowboys and travelers from all parts of the country stopped here en route to their respective destinations. It was a good, lively gambling town with several saloons. I was working for the Purple Mask then.and waiting to be put on a job when a handsome young fellow blew into town looking for a job on the Hash Knife Ranch, which was about twenty-five miles northwest and between Fort Griffin and Seymour. I was young and I guess he thought I would not mind lending him some money, so he told me that he was broke and needed money. He took a contract with Dan Irby, the Hash foreman, to drive a herd of cattle to either Kansas or Nebraska. At this time we did not know him.
"Sheriff Simpson and his deputy, "Dried" Henry Herring, grew suspicious of this young fellow and his men, and went out to the Hash Knife to investigate. Billy and his bunch were in the lot branding cattle, getting ready for the trip. Of course, they intended stealing the cattle when they got started and changing the brand. Billy's men shot the sheriff and the deputy and got on their horses and rode away. I guess this was one of the first breaks Billy ever made into notoriety.
"Sometime later I was on the scout, looking for pilfering Indians, as the Comanches and the Navajos were making depredations on our side, rounding up all of the loose horses and cattle they could find and slipping back across the Red River. An Indian is the slyest horse thief in the world. They keep in touch with each other by imitating birds, crickets, or barking like dogs. I was riding alone, along the Pecos north of where the Texas & Pacific roads cross the Pecos River, spotting in the valley when I ran into a bunch of men camped on the river. There were about thirty of these men and I naturally thought it was a cow-outfit. I stopped and thought I would spend the night with them. To my astonishment, I discovered that I had run into Billy the Kid again. His men thought I was a spy and wanted.to shoot me on the spot. I knew that they would search me and find my badge and identification papers so I hid them under a rock. They examined me thoroughly. I told them that Texas was getting too hot for me and that I was pulling for Mexico. Billy told his men that he remembered my face; that I had befriended him once and that I was not to be shot. Next morning he took my good horse, but gave me a Spanish pony and a $20 gold piece and told me to head on toward Mexico and that quick, I left my credentials under the rock. I went to El Paso where I found Pat Garrett and told him where Billy was camping.
"I was born two miles from Bremond in 1858 where I lived until I was sent to Salado College in 1887. I remained here until I was 18 years old. My first trip across the plains was with the Sleeker herd of 3000 Texas longhorns near Belton, and I was the youngest cow-puncher of the bunch.
"We took two cooks and seven men to herd the cattle. Our train consisted of three trail wagons which contained our provisions, ammunition and extras. The chuck boxes were built in the rear of the wagons. The wagons were pulled by four mules. We started in the Spring while the water and grass were good, and did not have to travel fast. It took us three months to make the trip. We followed the Chisholm trail running near Comanche, Fort Griffin, Shackelford County, Indian Gap, struck Northwest, then due north, crossing the Red River at Field's Crossing to Fort Elliot, where we picked up camp supplies and on through No Man's Land to Dodge City, Kansas.
"We sent spies ahead to watch for Indian rustlers. When we camped at night there were always men to watch so as to protect the herds from raids as well as the lives of the men. If a fellow went to sleep on the Job and was caught up with, he was shot. The Indians had a trick way of slipping up and stampeding the cattle. We lost a lot of our stock that way. The rustlers would change the brand and take their stolen herds either to Dodge City or Arizona and sell them to the Eastern buyers. A lot of Indians were prompted to steal the cattle by white men. Indians always wanted horses for themselves.
"When I rode for the Purple Mask, I had to go to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to follow up herds of cattle and try to catch up with the thieves, as they took their stolen herds to Oklahoma and resold them. They changed the road brand and sold them to the Indian Agency. A lot of these thieves pre-empted land around Amarillo and started ranches as that was a safe country for them to hide out in
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"In those days a cowboy wore shop-made high heel boots, a large beaver hat, either white or brown, as we did not have Stetson hats then. Our spurs were fancy and cost all of the way from $25 down to 50 cents. Only sheep-herders wore cheap spurs. We got our board and $25 a month wages. We did not have any expenses to amount to anything. About all we spent our money for was whiskey and gambling.
"After this trip I came back home. Bremond was nothing more than a white spot in the road. I was not content to farm. Once a cowboy always a cowboy, I believe. I wanted to be back with the herds and wander over the wild country, as there were plenty of real thrills in the West then. A gun was the law and order and every fellow wore that on his hip. I pulled west again to the Clear Fork of the Brazos to Fort Phantom Hill where I spent the winter with John and Dick Roberts. We hunted all that winter. They had a large ranch with about ten thousand cattle on it. We were not far from Abilene, Texas, which was nothing more than a whiskey trading point and a wild place. There were lots of buffalo around in this country.
"I helped carry a herd to South Dakota, near the Black Hills on the Smokey River, for John Powers of Wildeville, Texas. It took us six months to make the trip. We established a ranch there and fattened up the cattle. There were lots of friendly Indians near the ranch. I stayed a year out there then came back to west Texas. Cattle raising was a profitable business then, as we got all the way from $60 to $82 a head for them.
"To me the open country was the prettiest sight in the world. Not a fence except along and near the water. These were rail fences. You saw very few farms. Wire fences were unheard of then.
"The first wire fence I ever heard of was when the wire-cutters cut the fences on the Goodnight ranch. The Rangers were sent by the Governor to stop them and they had a big battle between the law and the wire-cutters in which several on each side were killed. I knew Charles Goodnight and his wife; have worked on his ranch. Every Sunday morning they laid a religious tract on our breakfast plates.
"I helped lay and stake the trail from Haskell to the Texas border and from there two ways, one to Dodge City and the other to Abilene. There were three trails from different parts in the State to market. I have been over the trails many times. I have seen the herds strung out five miles long. It was a pretty sight. Some were sold to the markets and others went to the stock ranches. Nearly all of the Northwest got their stock from Texas.
"I was in Dodge City, Kansas when "J. Buckle" John Powers gave me a fine pistol. It is a 45 Colts, silver mounted with his name engraved on the handle. He told me whatever I did, never to pawn or gamble it off and I never did. I still have it, and I would not take a thousand dollars for it; it has saved my life many a time.
"I have been in some close places but I believe that the narrowest escape that I ever had was in the Palo-Duro Mountains on the Dodge City trail, near Amarillo. I was riding with the captain and four other boys of the Purple Mask when we ran into a band of fifty warriors, early in the morning. We made it to the canyon and concealed ourselves. The Indians rode out in formation near the northeast bank of the arroyo. Their chief rode the most beautiful white horse I ever saw and wore a bright red blanket. Our captain charged us not to waste a single shot, as we had 300 rounds each and which had to last us all day. Every shot had to count. Nearer and nearer they came on us, gobbling like turkeys or yelling like demons. Late that evening their chief was killed and they were routed. Only one of our men was wounded. He bandaged his bleeding leg up with a handkerchief and fought all day. We stayed in the canyon until night, taking a chance of wading down the stream until we could get out of reach of the Indians. We made it to a ranch house where we spent the remainder of the night and got horses.
"As we did not have movies in those days, none of us were asked to join them, but when William Cody, (Buffalo Bill,) came to the Panhandle with Dr. Tarver getting paint horses and riders for his show, I met him and was asked to join his show, doing riding, roping and shooting stunts.
Henry Ethridge was married to Mrs. C. A. Jones of Marlin in 1903. They have returned to "Uncle Henry's" native town, Bremond, where they expect to spend the remainder of their days.