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Owens vs. Currence, 1883

Monday, January 30, 2012

Most of the people who settled Southwestern Nebraska were hard working, honest folk who had come to make a better life than the one they left back east.

But there were always some, the adventurers, that thought that might discover an easy path to riches by taking advantage of folks who were weaker, or not as smart as they were -- the gamblers, the professional gun men and rustlers.

And there were always some folks who had come west to escape their past and didn't want to get too close to folks -- who might ask too many questions.

Wayne Lee, the well-known western writer from Nebraska has collected a number of stories about some of the early misfits, and put them into a book, entitled, "Wild Towns of Nebraska."

The following story, concerning a murder weapon, is taken from that book:

In February 1883, a bizarre murder took place on Driftwood Creek, 12 miles south of Culbertson, Nebraska. It began as a simple fight between two brothers-in-law.

Elihu Currence and his wife, Jane, lived in a log house on the Driftwood. Elihu was a heavy drinker, with a bad disposition. He was mean to his farm animals, a cardinal sin among settlers, so very dependent on livestock.

He was even mean to his favorite horse, a white mustang, which he rode everywhere. Nor was Elihu a popular man with his neighbors. They knew him as a lazy fellow who shunned work. He was always trying money-making schemes, but wouldn't follow up on them if they required physical work.

Elihu had grand plans. He had visions of a cattle ranch where the cattle would take care of themselves on the rich buffalo grass. He would have his ranch; it was just that he did not have money to buy either land or stock, and of course he was not about to work to get it.

One day a young man from Pennsylvania, Billy Owens, wandered into the country. He had a little money, and in him Elihu saw his escape from work. He invited Billy into his and Jane's home, and somehow he wormed his way into Billy's confidence. Together they formed a partnership. With Billy's money, and Elihu's persuasive skills, they started a small cattle ranch.

Billy soon perceived his partner's nature. He could furnish the money and the work -- but the profits would be taken by Elihu. Billy might have dissolved the partnership early on if Elihu's sister, Eliza, had not come for a visit.

Eliza Currence caught Billy's eye the moment she came on the scene. Billy felt he needed a home of his own. He really did not care much for living with Elihu and Jane. Before long Billy and Eliza were married and set about building a dugout sod house down the creek, a short distance from Elihu and Jane.

At first, Eliza liked having a home of her own, even if it was just a dugout. But soon she tired of their hole in the ground, where bull snakes could crawl in, almost at will.

Elihu accepted the marriage of his sister to Billy as a signal. Since Billy was now a member of the family, anything Billy had also belonged to him. That applied to the partnership's cattle (but not the work). Billy was a mild man, who didn't like trouble, but eventually Elihu's bullying and the way he cut up the profits of the ranch got to be too much, even for him. The two men quarreled frequently.

Eliza grew to hate the quarreling between her husband and her brother. She hated the dugout, and began to insist that they move back to the log house with Elihu and Jane. That, Billy swore, he never would do. He was as close to Elihu as he cared to be.

Finally the tension between Billy and Eliza got to be too much. Eliza packed her clothes and moved, alone, to her brother's house. She told Elihu that Billy had hit her. Elihu went to the dugout to have it out with Billy. Though Billy swore that he had not struck his wife, Elihu proceeded to beat him up. He was big and mean and gave Billy a cut lip, a black eye and a torn jacket. Billy managed to get away and took refuge with his good friends and neighbors, the Charlie Knobbs family.

Though the Knobbs family also lived in a dugout with six children, they made space for Billy. That night, Billy confessed that he had visited a fortune teller in McCook, who had told him that he and Eliza would separate, and that he would die with his boots on.

Bill acknowledged that she was right about the first part, but he was reluctant to agree with the part about the boots. The morning after the fight, Elihu rode his little white mustang up to the Knobbs place, on his way to Culbertson. He was in an ugly mood and Mr. Knobbs could not get a decent word out of him. Elihu asked if Billy was there, then spurred out of the yard without waiting for an answer. Charlie realized that Elihu knew that Billy was there.

Later, a neighbor, Gus Anderson, told Charlie that Elihu had said that he was gunning for his no good brother-in-law. That evening, Charlie Knobbs heard Elihu ride into the yard on his way home. Charlie went out to meet him. Billy came out and stood beside him. Elihu jerked his lathered pony to a stop in the yard. There were red streaks on the pony's flanks and sides where Elihu had raked her with his spurs. Foam and sweat trickled down her withers. He had a bottle sticking out of one pocket and it was obvious that he was drunker than usual.

He swore at Billy. "If you ever set foot on my place again or try to see Eliza I'll blow you to hell and back," he roared. Billy was scared. His legs were shaking, but he wouldn't back off. "I'm coming up to get my trunk," he said. Elihu whipped out his gun. "Where you're going, you won't need no trunk!"

Before Charlie Knobbs could stop him, Elihu fired and Billy staggered back with a bullet in his chest. Elihu jabbed his spurs into the pony's flanks and the little mustang leaped into a gallop. As he left the yard Elihu stood straight up in the stirrups and threw his gun into a patch of sunflowers.

Charlie and his wife lifted Billy to his feet, and led him into the house, where they laid him on the bed. With blood bubbling on his lips, Billy whispered, "I'm done for. The fortune teller was right. I'll die with my boots on."

The nearest doctor was at Cornell, on the Nebraska-Kansas line, 15 miles away. By the time Knobbs could summon him to their dugout it was too late. The doctor could not save him. Billy had lost too much blood. He died the next day, Valentine's Day, 1883.

After Billy died, Charlie Knobbs went to Culbertson to summon the sheriff. The Sheriff got as far as the Knobbs place and took sick -- a bad case of nerves -- an example of the fear that a drunken Elihu exerted on the countryside. Another trip to Culbertson, by Charlie, alerted the Deputy Sheriff, while Mary Knobbs stayed and nursed the Sheriff through his sick spell.

By the time the authorities got to the Currence place, only Jane and Eliza were there. Elihu was gone. People reported that they had seen someone riding hard on a spotted pony, but didn't suspect that it was Elihu, until a neighbor, Jim Frakes, reported that he had seen Elihu painting black spots on his white mustang the evening of the shooting -- before Jim heard of the murder. He said that he had been puzzled at the time by such strange behavior.

A funeral service was held for Billy at the Charlie Knobbs' home. A homestead preacher, Dan Matson, read the third chapter of Genesis and said a few words. Billy's wooden casket was loaded in a lumber wagon and hauled to Culbertson, and subsequently shipped back to Pennsylvania for burial.

About a year later, Charlie Knobbs spotted an item in a newspaper, reporting that a man in Eastern Nebraska had been executed for a murder he had committed. Before the fellow died he confessed to another murder, the year before, in Hitchcock County.

The fellow's name was different, but Charlie knew from the description that the man was Elihu Currence. So even though the people in Hitchcock County had not had the chance to try him for the murder of Billy Owens, Elihu's fate was the same.

Many years later, William Stock, who farmed the land where Charlie Knobbs had lived, plowed up an old rusty gun -- the one that Elihu Currence had thrown into the sunflowers, the afternoon he killed Billy Owens. That gun is now on display at the Hitchcock County Museum in Trenton.

Dangerous times, those pioneer days in Southwest Nebraska.


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By