September 5, 2008
Auction markets and video auctions have done such a good job for consignors and buyers that the days of the country trader are almost over. But once upon a time there existed a group of men to be feared, grudgingly respected and occasionally even admired. They were gunslingers who operated on the fringes of the frontier and they stood a breed apart from the common man. They spent their lives in an ever-ending quest to build their reputations, which even now are based partly on myth, partly on fact.
Although they packed checkbooks instead of Colts, these duelists were always lightning quick to accept a challenge to go against the very best in the business. Their duels are recalled in bunkhouses, bars, banks and wherever else cowboys gather. If there were cattle for sale these men strapped on their leather and fought to the bitter end. And although no one has been gunned down recently, at least that I know of, their contests are legendary, now part of the fabric of the west.
The protagonist of this true story is dead now, pushing up daisies. Although we are now much too refined to refer to our bone orchards as “boot hill,” one hundred years ago that was surely where the outlaw in this story would have been planted.
This is a simple tale of right versus wrong. Of good versus evil. On the side of righteousness was a legend known simply as Ellington, an honest, law-abiding citizen of the west. On the other side of the trade was our gunslinger, a widely feared man who was tougher than rawhide, more dangerous than a discount divorce and as ethical as a herd of goats. Although most people considered him a bully there can be no question that he was an accomplished practitioner of his trade. His empire consisted of far flung ranches, a gambling establishment and a rumored house of ill repute in the Nevada territory. He made most of his money out-swapping people of their cattle and their ranches and cattlemen and cowboys still speak in hushed, almost reverential tones when they mention his name.
Now, Ellington has always been quick on the draw when it came to doing a deal. So when the gunslinger called him out and said he had a large bunch of cattle for sale Ellington was quick to the draft book. After all, it was a huge number of cattle, the kind of trade upon which reputations are built and fortunes are made… and lost.
When the deal and the duel were finally done Ellington was still alive but he was bloodied and wounded. Nothing was as it was supposed to be. The drouthed out cattle were not as they were represented to be by the gunslinger and every sort turned into a vicious argument. Everything that could go wrong did, and the gunslinger used every trick in the book to gain an advantage. The cattle had been salted and were full as ticks and the scales seemed to favor the seller. Needless to say, Ellington lost saddle bags full of money on the deal. When it was all over he was heard to emphatically mutter, “That’s it. He’s just too tough. Never again will I trade with that man.”
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Later that night Ellington was licking his wounds as he walked down the hall of a cattlemen’s hotel in Winnemucca, gathering up friends, as usual, to take to dinner. Now, we don’t know if it was because it was stifling hot in the old hotel or if the outlaw was laying a trap for Ellington, but his door was wide open and he was on the phone as Ellington walked by.
“What are you doing?” said Ellington, “Want to come to dinner?”
“Nah,” said the outlaw, “I’m trying to sell some cattle on another of my ranches.”
They met at dawn as the fog lifted over the Rubys. Only a dog prowled the dusty streets; the town folk were hunkered down inside, safe from the pitched battle that would soon transpire. With blazing speed the gunslinger drew… up in his pickup and he and Ellington were off to trade on another set of cattle, to see who would be carving another notch in their gun when the smoke cleared that western day long ago.
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