The Wild Man of Poker Flats

While I never knew my grandfather Foreman, from the stories I've heard, he must have been a very stern person who ruled the family with an iron hand which grabbed whatever was handy to give one of his kids a good thrashing. Few of his ten kids stuck around home past the age of about fifteen before leaving. It seems rather strange because just as he would get one of the big enough to become really helpful around the place, he seemed to make things so difficult for them that they would leave.

The year was 1905 and my dad had just turned thirteen when he and his father had their final falling out. My dad said that after his father went to sleep, he stuffed whatever he could into a pillow case, took the best horse on the place and left home in the middle of the night. He, like most of his older siblings, never returned. He sort of bounced around the country for about a year before finding his way to where his older brother, George, was working as a cowboy for Chester Peek. Peek lived in the town of Panhandle but ran cattle on several small ranches scattered across the plains. One of his cow camps was about thirty miles to the east at a place called Poker Flats. There wasn't much there, just a windmill, a catch pasture and a half-dugout for the hired hand to live in.

While the closest town was thirty miles away, there was a constant flow of people traveling by on the wagon trail that came out of the Oklahoma Territory, went through Amarillo and on westward. The windmill acted as a magnet that attracted people traveling in either direction to stop and spend the night. Furnishing the weary travelers with water was no problem, but in those days when people were far more obliging toward others in need, one simply did not refuse a request to "borrow" something. Today, when someone asks to borrow something, we expect them to return it. That was not the case in those days, it was a nice way of asking for something without calling it a gift.

First, they would come to the dugout and ask if they could camp next to the windmill, followed by the next request to turn their livestock loose in the catch pasture. There was plenty water for everyone but before long, the extra load of stock grazing in the catch pasture would eat all the grass and George and my dad would have to take down the barbed wire, pull up the posts and move the fence to new grass.

As soon as the travelers had turned their stock loose in the pasture, unloaded their kids and set up camp, they would discover that they were out of matches, tobacco, sugar, salt, flour, lard, coffee, firewood or whatever and head back to the dugout to "borrow" a little of it. Since Mr. Peek furnished all the supplies for the camp, George didn't mind sharing if he had it. Even then, their generosity caused them to come up short of food a lot of the time.

The real problem was firewood. There wasn't a stick of wood anywhere near the camp so when they needed firewood, they had to ride about five miles, chop it and haul it back on horseback. To a cowboy, chopping wood is one of those things which he had rather eat a bug than do.

George and my dad decided that the only way to stop the drain on their firewood and other supplies was to discourage people from camping there so they came up with a plan. Late one evening a wagon loaded with furniture, chickens, cow, goats, wife and kids came creaking to a halt next to the windmill. As the milk cow and three goats they were leading joined their horses at the water tank, the man came to the dugout to ask if he could camp there. My dad was outside and told him that it would be fine and suggested that they not only turn their livestock into the pasture, but also pull their wagon in there.

It was getting close to dark when the man came back to see if he could "borrow" some coffee for breakfast. My dad asked him to come down into the dugout and he would get it for him. As the man descended the dirt steps into the dimly lit room, there was George, stark naked, hairy as an ape and chained to the leg of the bed. He was sitting on the floor, muttering some sort of intelligible gibberish and making little piles of dirt with his hands. When he saw the man, he uttered a low growl, leaped to his feet and lunged at him. The chain around his neck jerked him to a stop just before he reached the man's throat.

The poor man scrambled back up the steps in terror. My dad came out and told him that the man in the dugout was his brother and that he had gone crazy a few weeks back. He said that he was keeping him chained up until the ranch owner came out and then he would send him to the insane asylum in town. To add emphasis to the story, my dad pointed to a dead horse about a hundred yards away and told him that George had killed it with his bare hands. The horse had actually been struck by lightning.

As soon as it was good and dark, and the man had told his family the story about the crazy man chained up in the dugout, my dad started yelling for help. When the man came running, my dad told him that George had escaped and they had to catch him before he got away and did something real bad. They especially had to keep him outside of the catch pasture and away from the man's wife and kids. My dad said if you got hold of the chain, he would usually calm down and you could handle him.

My dad started in one direction and sent the man in the other. Naturally, George was waiting for the man and took after him in the dark, growling and rattling his chain. George chased him one lap around the catch pasture, handed the chain to my dad and he chased him for another one. They took turns chasing the poor man around and around the catch pasture until he was about to drop. Finally, my dad yelled that he had caught George and had him under control.

When it was light enough to see the next morning, the man and his family were long gone. As the man moved westward, he told everyone that he met about the crazy man that killed horses with his bare hands and how he and his family had barely escaped with their lives. The people he told made a wide circle around the windmill and kept going when they reached it. Naturally, they also told everyone that they met about the crazy man and with each telling the story got bigger and better. Within a few days, the story about a wild man running loose and killing animals and people had spread for miles in both directions. It had certainly cured their problems of people stopping and asking to stay there.

When Chester Peek heard that there was a wild man chasing and killing people at his ranch, he got a couple deputies to go along for protection and headed out there to see what was going on. When they told him what they had done, he failed to see the humor in it and fired both of them.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman