Search This Blog

Monday, April 1, 2019

Part Two: Underground Tunnels and Wolf Caves by Elizabeth Clements


Isn’t it interesting  what a chance encounter can lead to? Back in the 1990’s, a giant poster in a booth at the Medicine Hat Exhibition & Stampede drew my attention and the lonely-looking author seated at the table with a stack of her book. Most Stampede attendees are more interested in buying cowboy hats or candy floss than a book to carry around on the midway or while watching rodeo events. Being a writer myself, I had empathy for her, stopped to chat, and bought her book—One Hundred Years of Grasslands. It remains my favorite book of all my dozens of research books of Canadian history.

Marjorie Rohde Mason was born and raised on a ranch in the Grasslands region of southern Saskatchewan. The ranch has been in her family for over a hundred years and thus she had heard lots of stories passed down about the lawless days of horse-thieves and cattle rustlers in the Big Muddy badlands. The book is full of history and reminisces by pioneers of the area. One quote speaks volumes: “Most of the time, you could not tell the colour of the horses for mosquitos.” One chapter heading and photograph particularly intrigued me: wolf caves. I had to visit them.

Nineteen years ago we made that trip to celebrate the new millennium. The day following our tour of the Chinese tunnels in Moose Jaw (Part 1), we drove approximately 160 kilometers south to the hamlet of Coronach. As luck would have it, we were the only ones who’d booked a tour that day, so instead of being crammed in a passenger van with a dozen  tourists, we had the guide all to ourselves in the comfort of our van with her giving my husband directions. What a stroke of luck that was having her undivided attention! I took lots of pictures and notes, which I can’t find right now,  so I’m writing from nineteen-year-old memories, Marjorie’s book, and a little help from Google for pictures.

Many of the places our guide took us to were located on private land, under lock and key, accessible only through her. We wandered around a one-room schoolhouse where we saw old school desks,  a pot-bellied stove, lessons  written on the blackboard and breathed in the dusty air of the old building.  In my mind I heard the children’s voices reciting their lessons, imagined the teacher walking down the aisles checking their arithmetic, and glanced out the tall fly-specked windows at the two outhouses near the play area.

We visited an Indian burial site and ceremonial circles that were fenced off.  Two particularly interesting sites  displayed effigies of a large turtle and also a buffalo, each a pattern of carefully placed stones that have rested undisturbed for decades. “Dakota Siksika legends use turtles to represent wise and highly respected people. Buffalo were the “staff of life” for Indigenous people and this (buffalo) effigy is believed to be the only one in Canada if not North America.”

Then at last we left the main road and traveled along a gravel trail on private land to the old Giles ranch. I still remember the lonely, deserted feel of the weathered fence rails with no cattle or horses in sight, the heat blasting on my shoulders, and the stillness of the prairie with only the breeze whispering stories too low to hear. Our guide had keys to unlock the gate. I don’t recall a sign on the gate then, but apparently one exists now that warns “All trespassers will be given a fair trial and then hung.”  Friendly, eh?

We drove a little further, disembarked, and at last I gazed at the entrance to Sam Kelly’s caves. One cave was used by the outlaws and the other held their horses to keep them hidden from sight. The caves were originally occupied by wolves; outlaws enlarged them. (For the safety of modern-day tourists, the caves have been reinforced with wooden beams.) 

I ducked inside the bigger one used by the men and just stood there, eyes closed, and breathed in the cloying smell of dirt walls all around me. Imagined two outlaws hunched over a tiny fire, heating their coffee and beans while another outlaw kept watch above on the high bluff for any sign of the red-coated North West Mounted Police approaching. If so, he’d warn the others and they’d rush their stolen horses across the narrow gully and up the slope of Peake's Butte  and cross the International Boundary (49th parallel) just a few yards away. There was also an escape tunnel in case the "Redcoats" were to close.

This memory was used in the third book of my trilogy: Beneath A Desperado Moon which will be published sometime next year by Prairie Rose Publications. Reliving these memories, I may just want to go back and revisit that cave <grin>.

This area of the Big Muddy was the first point of the Outlaw Trail, which was carefully organized well over a century ago by Butch Cassidy and  Kid Curry (whose real name was Harvey Logan). Patterned after the successful efficiency of the Pony Express before railroads made the Express obsolete, Butch had set up relay stations all along the route from Canada to New Mexico for the convenience of The Wild Bunch. Butch arranged to always have stations equipped with fresh horses, food, and protection. There were “friendly” American ranchers all along the border and down through the western states who willingly helped the outlaws by keeping fresh horses at the ready. For more information about the Outlaw Trail in the Big Muddy area, check out this link:

The discovery of gold in Montana enticed not only the gold-seekers but also the building of railroads to transport the ore—and ruthless outlaws who were happy to relieve them of their gold and money. The drought of 1883 caused tremendous cattle losses; the price of beef went down and many cowhands were let go accordingly. Unable to find work, many of them drifted into robbing banks and horse-stealing to survive. If you can buy or rent the movie, Monte Walsh played by Tom Selleck, here’s the trailer to give you a good idea of a cowboy’s life herding cattle: .

The Wild Bunch outlaws were excellent horsemen and accomplished horse thieves. Although they were most noted for their bank and train robberies, one branch of the gang concentrated on stealing as many as 200 horses and driving them across the border, selling them, stealing them back and fleeing into Montana and North Dakota where they’d resell them again. The Nelson-Jones Gang, reportedly a part of The Wild Bunch, and Dutch Henry were known to do this quite successfully. 

In my book, Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon, the Billy Cranston Gang was inspired by the Nelson-Jones Gang that raided the border ranches, causing a lot of grief and hardship. Nelson was a tall, skinny red-haired, red-bearded man described as having sharp eyes as “cold as fish”.

In Montana, Nelson was known as a rustler and a killer and was never without a gun. One of the stories about him involved him boldly breaking a gang member, Trotter, and another prisoner out of a Montana jail in 1894. Seffick promptly joined the outlaws. Nelson’s gang created so much trouble that ranchers banded together and posted a $1500 reward each for Nelson and Carlyle, an ex-mountie turned outlaw, and lesser amounts for several other outlaws.

Charles "Red" Nelson (also known as Sam Kelly) eventually gave himself up in Plentywood, Montana, but due to insufficient evidence and because most shootings were considered self-defense, he was released. He (ironically) bought a ranch in the Big Muddy area and it was rumored he was periodically visited by former gang members. I love this little tidbit: “If the rain barrel was tipped a certain way it was a signal to visitors that it was not safe to be in the area.” He supposedly died in 1954.

Another outlaw in my novel is French Henri, whom I mentioned in my author’s notes as being patterned after Dutch Henry, an excellent horseman and bronc buster, but best known for being a horse thief in the Big Muddy area. After being kicked out of Dodge by Wyatt Earp, Dutch hooked up with a trail drive to Montana and proceeded to swindle his boss, eventually causing the man to go bankrupt. Dutch and his men would haze as many as 400 horses across the border, selling, re-stealing and reselling just like certain members of the Wild Bunch. His gang had some interesting names: Bloody Knife, Pigeon-Toed Kid, James McNab, Duffy, and Birch. With names like the first two, no wonder they were feared by the border ranchers.

There are conflicting accounts of Dutch Henry’s death. One story is that he was killed in Canada by the North West Mounted Police—twice! Another account says he was found dead in the Minnesota brush, yet a third report claims he was hanged in Mexico. Or did he marry and live peacefully in Minnesota until he died of a gunshot wound? This has stimulated some history buffs to play detective to solve the mystery. Check out this link for a little more history on Dutch Henry:

The Big Muddy Badlands is an amazing narrow valley about a two hours’ drive south-west from Regina, Saskatchewan. It has amazing scenery, created by the Ice Age traveling through the area  millions of years ago and melt water creating all kinds of formations. Wind and rain also play a part in erosion of the cliffs and buttes. They also provide great hiding places for outlaw activity. On our last day we did some exploring on our own.

We traveled off the main roads onto a trail across the prairie to see Castle Butte, an amazing large sandstone and clay hill pockmarked with caves—perhaps wolf caves in the past?

It stands 200 feet high and is a one-quarter of a mile around the base. We didn’t climb it, but I saw all kinds of possibilities for this in a book. Apparently, some of the caves are narrow and deep so you take a risk exploring them. Years ago, when lost, people used the landmark to get their bearings again.

On our way home to Alberta, we headed west toward Eastend, south of the Cypress Hills to visit a friend. Along the way near Wood Mountain, we came across a small North West Mounted Police Museum but sadly after the Labor Day weekend, it was open only on weekends so we couldn’t go inside. Perhaps we’ll see it on our next trip. The mounted police had a base at Wood Mountain and had their hands full with whiskey smugglers and outlaws whipping in from Montana, stealing cattle and horses and escaping across the border again and avoid prosecution. All they could hope was to catch them in the act in Canada and incarcerate them.

There are lots of interesting, historic places to visit in western Canada that give you glimpses of our pioneer days, the difficult task the police force had to control the whiskey trade, horse-stealing and cattle rustling. I could only touch on a bit of that history. I’m glad you came along for the brief outing.

Link for Castle Butte and pictures;aggregationId=101&albumid=101&filter=7&ff=329947225


  1. All of those adventures were mentioned in her book? That's a whole bunch of places to see and it was a lucky thing that, because of her, you had access to places others don't ordinarily get to see. All of this because you saw an author in need and befriended her. You have certainly been rewarded, Elizabeth. I hope you find your pictures and notes. You are quite the historian.
    All the best to you, Elizabeth.

    1. Her book gave a history of the area and lots of pictures. It was the pic of a wolf caves that intrigued me and although my first book is not set in the Big Muddy area, but further north and west in the Cypress Hills, I was influenced by the outlaw activity and it fired up my imagination. I couldn't believe our luck in having a tour guide all to ourselves instead of having to share her with a dozen tourists. If we ever go again, I'd pay extra to have that privilege again. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah.

  2. There are no chance encounters! Don't you find that? What an amazing trip you had and I love how you were able to stand in the cave and soak it all in. There really are some special places like that. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Sounds like an incredible trip. And now, I want to visit Canada!!

    1. The fact that the trip is still so strong in my mind, and part of my trilogy, it definitely was an incredible trip. Please do visit's a beautiful country with lots of history. Just recently binge-watched two seasons of Frontier and I tell you, there sure was lots of treachery in the Hudson Bay fur trading days in the 1700's.I'm eager to see the third season hopefully sometime this fall. I hope you'll get a chance to come explore our beautiful country. I've written several books set in various provinces, but other than New Brunswick, so far all my stories are in the West. Thanks for stopping by, Kristy.

  4. How interesting, Elizabeth. What a great post. Lucky for us as well as you that you found that author.

    1. I so agree, Caroline. If I hadn't gone to the Stampede, wandered through the exhibition hall and met Marjorie and bought her book, well, I might never have gone to Moose Jaw, stayed in my first B&B, toured the Chinese tunnels and gone on to book a tour to see the wolf is truly a string of encounters like Patti mentioned above. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Great post, Elizabeth. I'm reading BENEATH A HORSE-THIEF MOON and this makes the area and the people come alive and the area becomes another character. I think I told you I had spent some time in Alberta, but it has been 35 years. I know we stayed in a small town and the people were wonderful. We worked our way from Alberta to British Columbia. An amazing trip. Am looking forward to the rest of the books in your trilogy. Best of luck with them.

    1. Thank you, Agnes, for liking my post. And I'm tickled to death that you're reading my book and "feeling" the location. Please visit my website my son created for me. He took all the wonderful pictures of Fort Walsh and glimpses of life in the day of a N.W.M.P. constable back in the 1875 onward when they reached the Cypress Hills where my trilogy is set. The Big Muddy badlands are about three hours' drive further east. I'd love to hear about your time in our beautiful province....and please let me know what you thought of my "children" when you finish reading my book. The second book, Beneath A Fugitive Moon will be published by PRP on June 27th. Thanks for dropping by, Agnes.

  6. Isn't it wonderful to walk the ground where so much history took place. Thank you for taking us along on the trip. It was a good one. Doris

  7. You're always so kind, Doris. That trip nineteen years ago is still so memorable. And absolutely something to be said about walking where history took place. I still remember the dusty, cloying smell of those dirt walls and it will probably stay with me for a long time. I think that's why I had trouble with my Colorado story because I've never been there, although I've spent many vacations in the Rocky Mountains when we've vacationed in Banff and Jasper. That's why all my novel settings so far have always been in places I've actually visited/stayed. Thanks for stopping by and so glad you enjoyed the trip