Where was Tom Horn, and where did he go after Willie’s
murder? How did he get into the worst trouble he had ever
Willie Nickell. Right, Tom Horn (WY
He had departed Miller’s ranch mid-morning July 17,
the day before Willie Nickell was killed. He headed southeast
along Spring Creek and a canyon, through which it feeds,
and then north to the Two Bar’s Colcord pasture, roughly
a half-mile east of Nickell’s homestead.
Miller’s ranch, a mile south-southwest of Nickell’s,
slopes toward the east and south. It straddles Spring Creek
and Sawmill Creek, which flow southeast. Nickell’s
homestead lay on North Chugwater Creek, a small tributary
of Chugwater Creek. Spring Creek runs east and slightly north
toward the town of Chugwater, and runs both above ground
and below the surface. Most of the terrain on Nickell’s
homestead slopes toward the east.
Horn’s work necessitated secrecy, so that rustling
could be more easily detected. Consequently only two witnesses
were able to confirm where they had seen him after he left
Miller’s. They were John Braae and Otto Plaga.
After inspecting the Colcord pasture he moved through the
hills toward Mule Creek to the north, and in the direction
of the headwaters of the Sybille, i.e., toward the northwest.
Mule Creek flows east and then north into the Sybille, north
of William Clay’s home.
area north of Clay’s (author’s photo)
He worked as usual in a random pattern, not following any predetermined
plan or map. Wednesday evening he was farther downstream (north)
on Mule Creek, heading away from Clay’s, farther yet
from Nickell’s and toward the ridge from which he saw
John Braae -- six or more miles from Nickell’s. Although
he thought Braae had not seen him, John testified later that
he’d seen Horn off his horse on top of a ridge to the
northwest, studying something through his field glasses north
of where he stood.
Under the cover of darkness -- the moon was between the new and
first quarter, and it may have been cloudy ?? he rode west, camping
out between Allen’s and Waechter’s ranches. The next
morning, Thursday, he patrolled Mike Fitzmorris’ pastures,
and then worked his way north toward Blue Grass Springs. He gradually
worked back toward Fitzmorris’ place on his way to Coble’s
headquarters north of Bosler junction.
Horn stated that he might have been within eight or nine miles
of Nickell’s the morning of the crime, but qualified that
by saying that when he spoke of distances he was simply making
an educated estimate.
Otto Plaga, a young local cowhand, stated that he had seen Horn
at a spot that was distant from the gate where Willie. The siting
took place only an hour after the killing. According to Plaga
Horn was moving slowly, his horse showed no signs of being pushed,
and the distance from the gate to where Plaga saw him was too
far from the gate for Horn to have covered it at a leisurely
After he finished at Mike Fitzmorris’ Thursday, he headed
north four or five miles, and camped. The next morning he cut
back and again worked the large Two Bar and Coble pastures adjacent
to Fitzmorris’ until mid?afternoon, and then camped overnight.
Early Saturday, July 20, he started down to Coble’s, west-northwest
of the area he had been patrolling.
He arrived at Coble’s in mid?morning, a fact that was attested
to by a cowboy, W. S. Carpenter, who working in the stable, and
by Mr. and Mrs. John Ryan. The Ryans had been hired by Coble
and Duncan Clark, Coble’s foreman, to keep house ?? general
duties involving cooking, cleaning and laundering for the crew.
Coble’s ranch at
Bosler (author’s photo)
Horn cleaned up, changed his clothes, read his mail, and made
a phone call to the Bosler station to send a telegram to Laramie.
He ate, paid Ryan twenty-five cents for the wire, and left his
laundry for them to do. He told Ryan he would pay for the laundry
when he returned.
At Carpenter’s suggestion, he drove John Coble’s
best horse into the corral, and saddled him up. The horse, a
bay named Pacer, was branded Lazy TY connected. Horn pushed him
hard on the ride into Laramie.
Coble had left on July 11 for his mother’s funeral in Pennsylvania.
Although Horn said he had an appointment with Bell in the evening,
it could be that Bell, who may have been paymaster, could not
meet Tom and had left the money with another party. Horn was
dressed in a good quality, brown wool suit.
He deposited the horse and went on a ten?day drinking binge.
Frank Stone drank with Tom on Sunday, July 21, and finally picked
him up for a ride out of town in a wagon on July 30. It was time
to sober up and go back to work. The next day, Stone accompanied
him northward to within ten miles of the Iron Mountain Ranch.
Mr. and Mrs. Ryan saw him headed back to the ranch from the Bosler
depot when they departed for Cheyenne that day.
Tom Horn’s whereabouts from that point until August 7 or
8 are unknown. The prosecution attempted to link him with Kels
Nickell’s shooting on August 4, but Horn stated he was “a
hundred miles” away on that Sunday morning. He wrote to
John Coble that he had been at Alex Sellers’ ranch that
Sellers was an Albany County rancher who owned a spread in the
northern part of the county in Antelope Basin. There is, however,
no part of northern Albany County more than one hundred miles
from Nickell’s ranch, so Sellers’ ranch in fact could
not have been that distance from the Nickell place. Horn, again,
was speaking figuratively. (Sellers was never called to verify
the statement during the trial, apparently because the defense
team could not locate him.)
Horn had been at Coble’s ranch for a few days when he was
summoned to testify at the inquest.
Around this time the chairman of the Laramie County Commission,
Sam Corson, had arranged for a deputy U.S. marshal, Joe LeFors,
to investigate the Nickell murder. The county and state had each
already offered a five hundred dollar reward for information
leading to the arrest and conviction of Willie’s murder.
LeFors was born in Paris, Texas, on February 20, 1865. He arrived
in Wyoming as part of a cattle drive in 1885, and went to work
as a cowpuncher outside Buffalo.
LeFors was a minor player in the successful effort in 1887 to
recover a large herd of stolen stock from the Hole-in-the-Wall
area, where rustlers generally felt themselves unassailable by
the law. He was later hired as a contract livestock inspector
for Montana in northeast Wyoming, working in and around Newcastle
to apprehend stolen cattle and thieves, and return them to Montana.
He became acquainted with W. D. “Billy” Smith, a
Montana brand inspector who was based in Miles City, just north
of Newcastle. Smith probably was LeFors’ immediate superior.
Joe LeFors in Miles City,
MT (WY State Archives)
LeFors married his first wife, sixteen-year-old Bessie M. Hannum
in Newcastle, Wyoming on August 5, 1896. He played a minor role
in the posse that pursued the three robbers of the Union Pacific
at Wilcox in 1899. The robbers eventually escaped into the Big
Horn Mountains, and at least one reached southwest Wyoming, probably
headed for Brown’s Hole.
U.S. Marshal Frank A. Hadsell had appointed LeFors an office
deputy on October 16, 1899. LeFors’ contention was that
Hadsell had approached him to join his staff because of his work
on the Wilcox posse.
Robbers again held up the Union Pacific on August 29, 1900 near
Tipton, fifty miles west of Rawlins. LeFors participated in the
posse that pursued the robbers to the Brown’s Hole area
south of Tipton, with a similar lack of success.
After his testimony on August 9, Tom Horn appeared at the rodeo
during the frontier celebration in Cheyenne. According to the
Laramie Daily Boomerang he won the multi-day steer roping competition
at least once. His associates, Duncan Clark, Frank Stone and
Otto Plaga, also were rodeo event winners.
Horn stated that he talked with Joe LeFors twice about the Willie
Nickell killing at one or more Cheyenne saloons during the fest.
In September took a load of horses by train to the Mountains
and Plains Festival, arriving early Sunday morning, September
He went on yet another drinking spree, and tangled in a saloon
with Denver’s popular boxer “Young” Corbett,
who broke Horn’s left jaw. A Denver police surgeon treated
Tom, binding up his head with plaster of Paris at five thirty
Monday morning. He was in St. Luke’s Hospital for three
weeks. In trial testimony, he said, “I got into trouble
because a man called me a liar.”
Horn spent the next few months at Coble’s ranch in Bosler,
and in Cheyenne and Laramie. Late in December he took a load
of beef to Omaha on the Union Pacific. Glendolene Kimmell spoke
of his getting drunk in Omaha and losing his “outfit” there,
and then returning to Cheyenne. He met with LeFors while in Cheyenne,
where they again discussed the Nickell murder.
LeFors had John Coble take Horn a letter about a stock detective’s job
in Montana that he had received from W. D. “Billy” Smith, Joe’s
Joe LeFors and Billy Smith
(WY State Archives)
Miles City, Montana
Dec. 28th 1901
Joe LeFors Esq.
I want a good man to do some
secret work. And want a man that I can trust. And he will have to be
a man not known in this country. The nature
of this, there is a gang over on the Big Moon River that are stealing
cattle and we purpose [propose] to fit the man out as a wolfer and
let him go into that country (and wolf).
And if he is the right kind of man he can soon get in with the gang. He will
have to be a man that can take care of himself in any kind of country.
The pay will be $125.00 per month and I believe a man can make good wages besides.
Joe if you know of anyone who you think will fill the place let me know. There
will be several months work.
W. D. Smith
P.S. Man will have to report in Helena.
Horn immediately responded.
Iron Mountain Ranch Company
Jan. 1st 1902
Joe LeFors Esq.
Recd yours from W. D. Smith Miles City Mont. by Johnny Coble today.
I would like to take up that work and I feel sure I can give Mr.
Smith satisfaction. I don’t care how big or bad his men are
or how many of them there are, I can handle them. They can scarcely
be any worse than the Brown’s Hole Gang and I stopped cow stealing
there in one summer. If Mr. Smith cares to give me the work I would
like to meet them as soon as commencement so as to get into the country
and get located before Summer.
The wages $125.00 per month will be all satisfactory to me. Put me
in communication with Mr. Smith whom I know well by reputation and
I can guarantee him the recommendation of every cow man in the State
of Wyoming in this line of work.
You may write Mr. Smith for me that I can handle his work and do it
with less expense in the shape of lawyer and witness fees than any
man in the business.
Joe you yourself know what my reputation is although we have never
been out together.
From that point Joe LeFors lead Tom Horn through a conversation that would
lead to his controversial trial and conviction.
The locations of Tom Horn’s “confession"