Last of the Robbers Roost Cowboys is an authentic tale that reads like good fiction and the hero even escapes by hopping a freight train. Move over Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you’ve been local legends long enough. Make way for Moab’s Bill Tibbetts.
A small rancher wronged by the big cattle outfits, in the 1920s Tibbetts became a fugitive from justice and hid out in what would become the most remote part of Canyonlands National Park—the Maze.
This book is the family’s story sprinkled with excerpts from The Grand Valley Times and other newspapers, and it is solidly based on oral histories, published accounts, and even an inscription on a cave’s ceiling.
This is the story of a real cowboy not a celluloid one. Tall, handsome, and rowdy, he couldn’t be bluffed and he wouldn’t be beaten, and when it came time for revenge Bill Tibbetts could make dozens of his enemies’ cows disappear off cliffs and down steep canyon trails without leaving so much as a hair or a hoof.
Tibbetts could live on top of Island in the Sky in the dead of winter without a campfire, and though he preferred poached venison, he could eat fried grasshoppers if need be.
This story has everything—a loving mother, a murdered father, a patient uncle, a sidekick named Tom and a horse called Ute. Of course the horse had been a tough Indian pony and was surefooted enough to carry Tibbets out of the slickrock canyons of southeast Utah.
Last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws is that rare publishing phenomenon of a personal family story expertly handled by a regional writer who gets it all correct—the landscapes, the diction, the patterns of speech, the rifles, the pistols, and the creak of saddle leather.
Rarely has a family tale of the Old West been better told. Author Tom McCourt’s engaging style is a new genre called narrative non-fiction. The dialogue is constructed but the scenes, the pacing, the personalities, the historical contexts, and the outcomes are all accurate. It’s a delight to read.
I picked up this book during deer season. When I should have been chasing bucks, instead I was propped up in my truck thoroughly engrossed in the plot. Here’s an example of author McCourt’s skillful, spare prose, “The tops of the mountains were still wrapped in snow and a forest of oak brush spread leafless and barren across miles of rolling foothills and up the mountainsides. A blue winter’s haze hung heavy in the air, filtering the sunshine like fine indigo silk.”
The book begins with Bill Tibbetts’ birth in a homestead log cabin south of Moab and then chronicles his father’s murder by a cowardly, wife-beating drunk. Tibbetts’ mother remarries but the step-father does not appeal to young Bill who gets bullied in the local schoolyard. His uncle advises, “It’s not the size of the man in the fight that counts, it’s the size of the fight in the man.”
Bill Tibbetts learns to fight, and fight hard, but the book isn’t just a story about a scrappy kid growing up in Mormon southeast Utah, the author also describes the last of the Ute Indian conflicts, overgrazing on public lands, range wars between cattlemen and sheepmen, and how hard it was for working cowboys and “small outfits” to get ahead. The reader learns about Bill Tibbetts’ life and the tenacity it took to run cows in the Robbers Roost.
After spending 18 months at the Utah State Industrial School for juvenile offenders on a trumped up charge of horse theft, Tibbetts joined the Army to serve in World War I. Returning in uniform, he makes a deal with his mother to help tend her small cattle herd, and then Bill tries to settle a score with his stepfather---with his fists. Instead, they shake hands in public and you learn the measure of the man---Tibbetts’ quick temper but also his honesty, his resolve, and his growing stature in the Moab community.
But he still doesn’t have enough grass for his mother’s cows and after a bleak season in Robbers Roost when a drought worsens an already damaged rangeland, he has the audacity to move the herd up to The Island in the Sky where other Moab cattlemen had their established winter range. Tibbetts was looking for a fight and he got one. He didn’t expect the other cattlemen to like what he did, but he didn’t think they’d shoot his mother’s Herefords.
No one was right because grazing allotments had yet to be determined. Passage of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act was still a decade away. The story of his careful and deliberate revenge is the heart of the book and a true tale of wilderness survival. And when he comes to shoot the sheriff, who is in cahoots with the big cattlemen, Tibbetts deliberately misses, but the sheriff definitely gets the message.
If you’ve got a cowboy on your Christmas list, skip the Stetson. Buy this book.
(Andrew Gulliford is a professor at Fort Lewis College.)