Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Duel on the Clearwater (1932)

The transition from one year to another is a time to remember. Perhaps because I have recently made contact with some people from Pullman, Washington, the town where I lived the first sixteen years of my life, something came back to me.

The memory concerns a man whose last name was, I think, Meade or Means, but whose first name was John.

My father was the Chairman of the Department of Animal Science at Washington State University (actually it was called Washington State College during our period there). Several times each year my parents gave a buffet breakfast for the faculty and graduate students of the Department, to which they would invite stockmen from the area, which included parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. My father believed that the graduate students should meet men who had spent their lives with farm animals, which in that part of the world meant mostly cattle, though there were some sheep and swine operations as well.

At one of these breakfasts a rancher stood by himself before one of my father's bookcases, occasionally greeting one of the older stockmen who came to the breakfast, but he made no attempt to circulate. He did not take off his hat, sometimes a habit of the older cattlemen. I was a little afraid of him, and my only interaction with him consisted of a nod he gave me when I came within a few feet of him to fill coffee cups.

After everyone had gone, I asked my father about the man with the hat. "John Meade," my father said. "I've never met him before, though we've invited him several times. I didn't think he would come."

"Why?" I asked.

"He doesn't talk much, you noticed? He's probably the most famous rancher in northern Idaho."


"What I heard was that there was a land dispute between him and another rancher. Their fathers had staked claims along the Snake River around the turn of the century. The claims overlapped somehow, which led to a range war and a couple of cowhands were wounded and one was killed, a Nez Perce who was a friend of John’s father. That brought in other people and it went on for a long time, years, decades, sometimes quiet, sometimes not. After the war started, the county lawman went off to join the Army and there was no one to keep the peace. John and the other rancher decided to settle the matter once and for all the old fashioned way. They met on the banks of the Snake with pistols in holsters, each with a witness. John was the one who walked away."

"When?" I asked.

"1942, 1943, I suppose."

I heard nothing more about John for two years, when one afternoon my father got a call from the shepherd of the college's sheep farm, five miles from Pullman. Claude Coke, the shepherd, had several collies and one of them had started behaving strangely. Claude, whom my father always called the Scot, locked the dog in a shed and fed it through a space under the door. Then it got out somehow and killed two sheep. Claude tried to shoot it but missed and the now clearly rabid dog was running around the farm but staying away from people.

My father called John, who said he would come the next morning. Just after dawn we drove to the sheep farm but John had already shot the dog. It was sixty or seventy feet from the road in a field of hay stubble. It had snowed overnight and the white belly of the dog blended into the snow. I remember several tufts of golden and brown hair on the dog's tail, pointed oddly skyward, blowing in a light breeze.

I did not see John's rifle, which he had probably put back in his truck. I wanted to go with my father to talk to the two men but he told me to wait in the Buick. When my father got close to them I saw Claude's back heave. My father put his hand on Claude's shoulder, shook John's hand, and walked back to the car.

"It's better that we leave. Claude liked the dog. He wouldn't want you to see him this way."

We drove away. Through the back window I could see John with the hat he never took off, and Claude, their backs still to us. I never saw John again.

"Claude said that John got him with one shot," my father said at the dinner table that night. "One shot with a .22 from the side of the road. Can you imagine?"

"We shouldn't talk about it," my mother said.

It was New Year's Day, 1959.

Corrections From a Reader. The following email came from a reader who asked to be called Rachel N. Admittedly I made no effort to find any source beyond my memory for the events described, so I suspect that her corrections given are to be accepted.

Dear Mr. Ensminger,
I have not read your blog before but was surprised when a friend from Pullman sent me an e-mail about your account of the duel that you say took place on the Snake River. That is the first of several mistakes in your or your father's account. The duel took place on the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Snake. Although I did not hear about the duel until ten or more years after you did I believe what I heard is more accurate than what you have written. My grandfather Jacob Schloss was there and was the witness for John Moody, whom you write incorrectly was called Meade or Means.

An even bigger error is the date you give for this event. It took place in 1932 when according to my grandfather there was very little law in northern Idaho. Nobody needed to go off to war for a duel to take place in those parts back then.

The name of the other man was Ulf Lindstrand, a Swede who was both a miner and rancher at different times and well known for his habit of picking fights, particularly if drunk, which he often was according to my grandfather, who knew both men.

My grandfather, Jacob Schloss, had a general store that everyone north of the Clearwater used at one time or another but he did not know either man well enough to serve as a second. This came about because the man who was supposed to be Moody's witness did not show up at my grandfather's store the morning of the duel. After a time Moody told Jacob to close the store and come with him to watch something along the Clearwater. He did not say what it was at first but John Moody was not the sort of man you said no to.

My grandfather was one of the few Jews in northern Idaho at the time (except for a few professors in Moscow that he always called "conversos") and when he learned the purpose of his being asked to come with Moody he felt obliged to tell Moody he was Jewish and did not know if a court would give full weight to his testimony as a witness. Moody told Jacob not to worry because it was Lindstrand who was going to die.

My grandfather did not describe the duel other than to say that Lindstrand fired quickly and twice at about thirty feet and missed both times but Moody took careful aim and hit Lindstrand in the chest with his only shot. Lindstrand died before Lindstrand's witness came back with a doctor.

Jacob Schloss did not speak of this for many years, not even to my father. Grandfather told the family about it in 1972 when I was 12. Jacob was always worried that he could be charged as some kind of accessory though he said that no one in northern Idaho was ever inclined to cause trouble for John Moody. Moody had died in 1971 and grandfather must have felt that it would be too late for any legal problems if his role became known.

When he made enough money Jacob moved to Portland in 1949 and opened a dry goods store which he ran until he died at 92 in 1982.

Rachel N., Atlanta

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