Wild Willie's Fort

"Wild Willie's Fort is on top of that Mesa," said my dad, pointing at a flat-topped hill capped with a layer of rock. We were traveling along a dirt road following the Cimarron River from the tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle into New Mexico. I was about fifteen at the time and had gone along with him on a cattle buying trip to northeastern New Mexico. WW-II was going full tilt and cattle buyers would hire him to arrange for trainloads of cattle to be shipped to the stockyards in Kansas City.

When my dad returned from World War One, he worked as a cowboy breaking rough stock for ranches in that area. He was fluent in Spanish and knew both the country and most of the ranchers. We would stop at a ranch, then he and the rancher would get on horses and ride off to inspect the herd. Perhaps an hour later they would return, shake hands and the deal was done. No contacts to sign, it was all on the honor system and a man's handshake was his bond. My dad knew that on a certain date the cattle would be loaded into freight cars for shipment and the rancher knew that when they arrived and were weighed in Kansas City, he would be paid a certain amount per pound. That's the way the cattle business was done in those days.

He continued his story as we drove along, "An outlaw by the name of William Coe had a place everyone referred to as Robber's Roost located near the Santa Fe Trail down in Oklahoma. It was close enough that he could raid wagon trains on both it and the Goodnight Trail, which ran up this canyon. The Federal Marshals tried to raid his place several times but each time he would escape and hide out up here. The Army finally caught him when they came in with some field pieces and blew up the Robber's Roost. They took him to Pueblo for trial but a lynch mob saved them the trouble."


I had bought a Schwinn Paramount MTB and installed racks on it for doing a Hut to Hut tour along the old 10th Mountain Division Training route but that sort of fell through. Now a use for it had come up. A friend who was going to Denver agreed to drop me off in Trinidad and pick me up in Boise City, Oklahoma five days later. That would give me a chance to explore the Goodnight Trail and do my first totally self-contained camping tour. Since at least half of the route would be dirt or gravel county roads, the bike was ideally suited for the trip.

He dropped me off in the middle of the afternoon in Trinidad, so I got a room and headed for the market to do the shopping for the trip. I remembered what a friend, Gerry Spiess, had said about buying supplies for his solo sail across the Atlantic. He said an ideal heat and eat food was Dinty Moore Beef Stew, so figuring two nights camping, I bought two large cans. As a backup, I got a package of Ramen noodles and a can of chicken. Breakfast would be instant oatmeal, which weighs very little. Thinking in terms of C Rations in the army, I got two cans of sardines, two of Vienna Sausage and a small can of beans for lunches. I eat very little bread so didn't bother with that. When trapped between shelves of all that food, one is tempted to start buying more food than they will actually eat. I put my bag on the scales in the produce section and had almost ten pounds, well over the 3 pounds rations a day for a combat solider. I figured that if worse came to worst, I could always scam something from ranches along the way. I did fall victim to a one-pound bag of trail mix next to the register, which turned out to be a wise buy for when I needed a quick snack.

I found my favorite cafe in small towns, the one closest to the courthouse. Always fairly good food, reasonable prices and a place where you can visit with the locals. I took a table next to two deputy sheriffs, just the people to ask about roads. "How's the road from here to Branson?" I asked one of the deputies.

"Fine road," he says, "paved all the way."

"No, I mean the one that followed the railroad and goes through Trinchera."

"Oh, that one's dirt and gravel, you want to take 160 to save time."

"Well, I wanted to follow the Goodnight Trail," I told them.

"It's OK, I suppose. School buses and people out that way use it all the time."

"By the way, what's in Trinchera?"

"Nuttin' much," He didn't offer more and I didn't ask.

The brick streets of Trinidad turned to gravel at the city limit sign and I was on my way. He was right; it was dirt and gravel and could be classed as OK. The constantly changing surface did require more attention than riding on pavement. I had three water bottle cages on the bike but took every opportunity to fill them when I'd come by an occasional ranch. A lady who answered the door at one place said, "I'd offer you a sandwich but I'm out of bread, How about a piece of apple pie?"

Who could turn down an offer like that even if it did turn out to be a frozen Mrs. Smiths pie? It served as lunch. I thanked her and rode on. Salt of the earth people out there; they find a stranger standing on their porch asking for water and next thing you are sitting at their table having pie.

I came to a deserted village of a few dilapidated mud and rock houses but no name on the map. The faded yard-limit sign beside the railroad tracks said, Abeyta. Sounded Spanish but not a word that I recognized.

Trinchera was exactly as the deputy had described it, Nuttin' much. In Spanish it means a trench or fortification, but in Spanish cattle country it's corrals or cattle pens. At one time it was a major point where buyers from the north would come to meet herds from the south. There was a spinning windmill pumping a stream of water the size of a pencil into a galvanized stock tank. The overflow went into a pond covered with green algae. The water was sweet and fresh, a great place to fill my bottles, wash my face and camp for the night. I was thinking about pitching my tent in one of the old buildings until a mile-long coal train came lumbering through. The engineer dutifully whistled at the yard limit signs even though there probably hadn't been anyone there to hear it in half a century.

I found a level spot far enough from the tracks so the trains wouldn't bother me and far enough from the well so I wouldn't bother any animals that came to drink and pitched my tent. I arranged three stones in a triangle to support my can of stew and lit a small pile of twigs I had collected. That was something else my dad had taught me, to build a fire only as large as I needed. I opened the can about three fourths of the way around and opened the lid to use as a handle. Before long the stew was bubbling. As I ate dinner, three deer came warily from the brush to drink and a train rumbled by. Camping doesn't get any better than this.

Say Branson and everyone thinks of the place in the Ozarks known as Las Vegas without teeth. The place with a population of three thousand residents but twenty thousand visitors every day. Branson, Colorado is nothing like that but the sort of place where you find yourself either because you wanted to go there or you are lost. I found myself there because it's on the Goodnight Trail.

You can spot the place five miles before you get to it when approaching from the west, a scrubby little town backed up against Johnson Mesa half a mile from the New Mexico line. The Burlington & Northern Railroad runs through but there isn't, and has never been, a depot. The trains just bellow through, pouring diesel smoke building up enough speed to get their mile long load of Wyoming coal over the pass. It's only claim to fame was as the place where Black Jack Ketchum served 30 days in jail just before getting himself shot while robbing a train in Folsom over on the south side of the mesa.

The paved road doesn't run through town, it sort of goes around it. Main Street, if you could call it that, is gravel. I figured there was bound to be a place to eat there since it's the only thing for miles and people have to eat someplace. When I rolled into town just before noon I found nothing but a closed service station on one side of the road and the volunteer fire department on the other. The only place one could spend money was a Coke Machine or pay telephone in front of the fire department. The city park has an old stone jail, one picnic table, a flag pole and of all things, a space with hookups to park one RV. The only soul who seemed to be moving was a man mowing the grass in front of the fire department. He killed the noisy engine as I rolled to a stop.

In visiting with him I found that he had moved back there after he retired from the Navy to take care of his parents and sort of stayed after they died. He was now the unpaid mayor, fire chief, police department, tax collector and grass mower. His only real job was driving the school bus. He also explained the city park with the single RV space. Every town in Colorado received money from the state lottery based on population and they had to use it for tourism development. They spent their $1600 to run a new water line and build a city park. The RV space was so it would qualify as something for tourism and the water tap for it justified the water line.

I had food in my panniers to get by but had rather have a hot meal so I hopefully asked if there was any place to eat. "At the school," He replied.

It turned out that the school had 42 students and served three meals a day because many of the students lived in town from Monday through Friday because they came from ranches too far away for them to be bussed each day. The school bus ran twice a week. They also served meals to anyone who stopped by and it seemed to be Senior Citizens day with a couple dozen people of indeterminate age. The mayor and I sat with the superintendent/math teacher/coach of whatever they were playing and janitor. He asked if I would mind doing a program for the students about my travels and I agreed. He announced, much to the glee of the students, that instead of classes the hour after lunch, they would have a special program.

When lunch was finished, they folded and stacked the tables, re-arranged the chairs and the lunchroom became the auditorium. I rolled my bike in for show and tell and was introduced. I noticed that the Senior Citizens all stayed.

I gave a quick description of the bike; how many gears it had, how far cyclists rode in a day, that I was hauling everything needed to camp and then sort of threw it open for questions. The first question came from a man about my age, "Fella, ain't you old enough to know better than ride one on them thangs?"

That broke the ice and from there on I mostly told jokes and stories about my travels and answered questions that made a lot more sense than the first one did. Next thing I knew an hour and a half had flown by. The superintendent and certainly not the kids, seemed in any hurry for me to stop. Being fully aware that the mouth can produce more than the ass can endure, I ended my spiel while I was still had an attentive audience. I'm sure it was nap time for those on opposite ends of the age spectrum.

The mayor suggested that I stick around for a church potluck dinner planned for that evening and since the day was shot anyway, it seemed like a great idea. He said I could stay at the fire department where they had a shower and several cots. Turned out that not only did he wear several hats, he also had a collar that turned around; he was the minister.

I had breakfast at the school the next morning and when I rode out of Branson, I think I had met and shook hands with every one of the 58 residents indicated on the city limit signs.

Colorado State Road 389 changes to New Mexico State Road 551 a mile south of Branson where it crosses the state line. NM 581 is probably the shortest road in the state because it ends in eight miles when it intersects with NM State Road 456.

I hadn't seen a house in an hour or longer and even thought I had checked out several mesas along the way but none of them really matched what I remembered. The pavement ended when it turned south and I was back on gravel. The sun sinking toward the red hills said it was time to find a place to drive a tent peg. I hadn't seen a house or a vehicle in over an hour. No signs of rain tonight so it would be safe to camp near the river, if you could call it that. It was hardly more than a small stream at that point. I found a spot well off the road behind some brush next to the river where I thought no one would be able to spot me. No fences, no signs or anything like that.

I had pitched the tent and was gathering twigs for a fire when I heard a pickup truck crunch to a halt on the gravel road. I don't know how he spotted me because I couldn't see him.

He was the usual rancher-type; big hat, boots and a belt buckle the size of a Buick hubcap. "What the hell are you doing on my land?" was the first thing out of his mouth.

"Well, I was riding through and needed a place to camp for the night. I didn't figure I would be bothering anyone here. If it's a problem, I'll fold up my tent and leave."

Then a big smile broke across his face and he said, "Just kidding you. My wife saw you stop here and sent me down to bring you up to the house for supper."

Turns out that he lived only a couple hundred yards away in a house built from native stone that blended in so well it was hard to spot. Had a great meal and exchanged a number of stories. Then I asked him about Wild Willie's Fort. He got a rather strange look and asked, "Where did you hear about that?"

I told him about my dad telling me the story and he replied that was one of the buried treasure tales of that part of the country. He told me that Wild Willie was actually Captain William Coe whose main hideout was known as Robber's Roost down near Black Mesa, Oklahoma. However had built a fort on top of a mesa from which he would raid wagon trains headed up the trail and rob cattlemen returning from selling their cattle. According to legend all that money was buried someplace near the fort. He said that people had been climbing around on those rocks with metal detectors and secret maps for years but no one had ever found anything more than a few old horse shoes and things like that. "Nothing up there except rocks piled in a circle."

I asked him, "Well, do you think there is anything buried there?"

"He was like every other outlaw, no matter how much money they ever took, they spent every dollar of it on whiskey and women. Look at Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and Black Jack Ketchum; their relatives had to pay for their funerals."

Then he told me it was the next mesa east of there but suggested that I not go climbing around because of the sheer climb and loose rocks. He said that the only path to get on top was around on the south side where no one would see it. He noticed a car parked by the road when he went by one morning and it was there when he came back. He suspected that it was someone trying to climb up on top so he went around to check on them. He said he was near the caprock when he called out and heard some guy yelling for help. The guy had fallen the day before and broke his hip and had lain there for nearly 24 hours. "He would have likely died right there if I hadn't decided to go check."

When he took me back to my camp, he told me, "Drop by about seven in the morning for breakfast. There'll be a coffee pot on when you get there."

I stopped and walked around to the back side of Wild Willie's Mesa to where I could see the trail leading up to a narrow gap in the caprock. That was as close as I cared to get so I took a couple pictures and left.

Having seen Wild Willie's Fort (or at least the mesa where it's located) I rode on to Kenton, Oklahoma where the only business is a one-pump station, small grocery and, of all things, a B&B. I was back on pavement which began at the state line three miles west of town and could have made the remaining 40 miles. However, since my ride wasn't due till past noon the next day, I decided to check spend the night there. I debated between camping at the Black Mesa State Park or the B&B but not for long when I got a whiff of food cooking in the kitchen. As with most cyclists, the stomach rules.

It was a fortunate choice because in visiting with the owner, I found he also owned the land where the famed Robber's Roost was located. It's on private property and behind locked gates; not that he's anti-social or anything like that, he is concerned that a tossed cigarette would start a grass fire. He drove me out to visit the site in his pickup truck. There's not much there to see, just some crumbling old rock walls.

I rode on to Boise City the next day. It's claim to fame is that it was the only city in the US that was bombed during WW-II. Unfortunately, it was our planes that did the bombing when they mistook the lights around the courthouse for the markers for their target some 20 miles away. Fortunately they were just learning and the only casualty was a few chickens.

Related story about Robber's Roost


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