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Wild and Wooly

Drop CapONTANA at the turn of the twentieth century was still a rough frontier where drunken men regularly fought in the streets with their fists and sometimes their guns. On Christmas Day 1904, while visiting Wolf Creek in his horse-drawn buggy, Holly found himself in the middle of a commotion caused by a saloon owner named M. H. Bray. After sampling his establishment’s refreshments, Bray decided to celebrate the holiday by firing shots over the heads of a group of men who had gathered around Holly to chat after he had drawn up to a hitching post. Suddenly, one of Holly’s horses leapt into the air, and fell down dead, a bullet in its brain.

Three years earlier, in October 1901, Holly threw himself into a public brawl on Main Street in Wolf Creek with a pair of itinerant ranch hands named Arthur L. Green and Calvin C. Devois. According to a local report Holly “knocked out Davis in the first round” and knocked out Green in the second. To show that he harbored no hard feelings Holly invited the young combatants into the Blue Bird Saloon for a drink, but they declined his offer.
On Christmas Eve of that year several fires broke out on Herrin and Galen’s ranch, destroying two barns, two sheds, three corrals, four haystacks and one straw stack, property valued at $8,000 to $10,000. Neighbors who rushed to the scene and doused the flames spared Herrin and Galen of even higher losses. Because of the nature of these multiple blazes it was believed they were intentionally set.
A week later Green and Devois were arrested and accused of second-degree arson. Their bonds were set at $5,000 each and they were remanded to jail in Helena until the following Monday, when they returned to court and entered pleas of not guilty. Because no evidence was presented at this hearing an attorney tried to get Green released on a writ of habeus corpus, but the judge denied the request.
In May 1902 following an eight-day trial a jury deliberated Green’s fate for three hours and returned a guilty verdict on the charge of arson. During the trial the judge dismissed the charges against Calvin Devois, citing the state’s lack of evidence, and he was set free. Green, however, was sentenced to six years in the state penitentiary at Deer Lodge.
A self-described former schoolteacher born in Stratford-upon-Avon—William Shakespeare’s hometown—Green had served a year in prison in 1894 after pleading guilty for a burglary in Fort Benton. And several witnesses testified that he had publicly vowed to get even with Herrin.
In February 1903 Calvin Devois sued Herrin and Galen for malicious prosecution, While Green began serving his sentence his attorney, E. A. Carlton, was preparing to file a motion for a new trial. In August 1902 he submitted six affidavits to district court in Helena that described misconduct on the part of witnesses for the prosecution and four of the jurors. These were first-hand accounts of Herrin engaged in friendly conversations with jurors at the Grand Central Hotel in Helena, where he was staying during the trial, and palling around with the prosecution’s witnesses, some of whom were his employees.
After Green had languished behind bars for eighteen months a second trial commenced in Helena. Green “does not look the bronzed and sunburned rancher he did when tried before,” a reporter observed. “Instead he is thin and his face pale.” Two weeks later, on its second vote, a unanimous jury acquitted Green of all charges, and he was released from custody. “The Green case,” a reporter noted, “was one of the most famous of its kind ever tried in this county.”
By 1903 Holly Herrin’s net worth in today’s economy would make him a millionaire several times over. Not bad for an indifferent student who never finished high school. But sometimes what makes one man rich makes another man poor.
On a Saturday night in August 1903 Holly and eight other Wolf Creek area cattle ranchers, along with twenty to thirty of their neighbors and hired hands, armed themselves and covered their faces with bandanas. Under a full moon they rode north along the Missouri. Around midnight the gang invaded a 1,450-acre sheep ranch on the Dearborn River owned by Henry Nitche, a forty-nine-year-old immigrant from Germany. They tore down corrals penning some 2,500 head of sheep, and drove the animals through heavy brush, injuring fifty head. At gunpoint, they captured Nitche’s French-Basque sheepherder, Adelaire Des Genaise, put a rope around his neck, and took him several miles away before warning him to abandon Nitche’s sheep camp forever or they would hang him.