Shootout at Government Holes

Two Gunmen ‘Shoot It Out’ when Cowpuncher Meets Up with Man Who Did Not Run’

One Found Sitting Against Wall, Legs Crossed, as Other Fell on Bed

WOMAN MAY BE INVOLVED

Another Dramatic Chapter of Desert History Is Written With Lead
~ By EARL E. BUIE

Matt Burts and Bill Roberts, feudists and two-gun men of Government Holes, met face to face Sunday-night.

True to the first law of the range, “shoot it out”–the law that the quickest on the
draw lives–Burts and Roberts never flinched. It was fair; there was no advantage.

“Six-guns” flashed and two of the last of the gunmen of that weird vastness that centers around the water holes In the desert fell, each dying from the other’s bullets. Matt Burts and Bill Roberts died with their boots on: that is the unwritten but the immortal epitaph of the range.

Woman Likely To Be Involved

And even in this lonely desert a woman may he involved, for the wounds on Burts were washed clean and Roberts’ body was lying on a bed when the officers arrived, and woman was known to have been near the scene.

The duel spot is 260 miles by road from San Bernardino in the Ivanpah country, with its open cattle range, famed for lawlessness and gun fights. There last night Deputy Sheriffs Jack H. Brown and Jesus Amarias had not positively concluded that the tragedy with its two deaths was a closed crime. In a telegram to Sheriff Walter A. Shay, the officers bluntly told the story, partly dispelling the first theory that a murderer had slain the two men and fled across the desert hills. The telegram read:

“Bill Roberts and Matt Burts dead. Looks like duel between them, each killing the other. No
arrests.”

Rock Springs Cattle Co.

Rock Springs Cattle Co.

The duel was but another chanter of Government Holes thrilling history. On the wide and rocky ranges run the herds of “a big cattle outfit” the Rock Springs Land & Cattle company–and those of the “little man.” It Is what is known to cattlemen as an open range, worthless without its water holes. And since beef cattle were driven into the country there has been a never-ending dispute as to water rights. Into the quarrels crept the charges of “rustling,” strong words that brought hard men.

Matt Burts Is Two Gun Man

Matt Burts was one of these men. He carried two guns, one on each hip. In the courts here two years ago when Burts appeared as a witness against Bob Holiman in a “rustling trial, Holiman openly charged that Burts had been imported from Arizona to kill him. During the case, Holiman’s attorney requested the court to have Burts searched for a gun. Burts was then an employe of the Rock Springs outfit, but lately has had his own herd of a few cattle.

Bill Roberts kept his job as foreman of the Rock Springs company because he was a “man who
wouldn’t run.” Three foremen ahead of him at Government Holes had been run out of the country by gunmen, threats and by snipers who fired from behind the rocks on the hills overlooking the water hole and the foreman’s shack. Officers of the Rock Springs company charged that, rustlers’ were warring on the foremen, often alone at the holes while range riders were miles away.

Burts, since he left the cattle company, had been a quarrelsome character, drinking heavily and
making his threats against his enemies in the district. He wouldn’t leave; that would be cowardly.  Stories of his enmity toward Roberts have drifted into the sheriff’s office for weeks.

And in the country, wild and barren as it is, was a woman, a Mrs, Ridell, who lives on a lonely homestead In the Government Holes district. She once was arrested for moonshining when Burts was suspected. But she claimed that the still was hers and took her medicine in the Needles courts without whimpering.

Meanwhile, Roberts virtually lived by his guns. Three weeks ago, the cattle outfit foreman came to his shack after a day on the range and found 13 bullet holes through the house a mute warning that Government Holes was unhealthy for him. But Bill Roberts was, too, a man of the waste lands who wouldn’t leave.

Sunday, the story goes. Burts drove up to Roberts’ place with Mrs. Ridell and her grandson. Burts went up to the house, presumably to ask for a drink. Roberts met in the door. In an instant, their guns were in play, firing simultaneously, for neither Bill Roberts nor Matt Burts had a superior on the range for drawing in a hurry. It was the inevitable. Both shot straight and both died.

Two Men Are Found in Cabin

The bodies of Burts and Roberts were found in a ranch house. Burts had been shot squarely through the forehead. He was found in a sitting position, with his legs crossed and his hat on. All blood had been washed away from the wound. Roberts, shot through the abdomen, was found laid out on a bed. Both men were killed by .44 caliber bullets.

Sheriff Shay received word of the duel at midnight Sunday and immediately sent Deputies Brown and Amarias to the scene. The officers left San Bernardino at 1 o’clock Monday morning and six hours later they were in Goffs, 220 miles away an average of nearly 40 miles an hour across the desert. By 10 o’clock they were on the ground at Government Holes, 40 miles south and east of Lanfair.

Map of Government Holes area

Map of Government Holes area

The officers may return late today. They will conduct a thorough investigation of the case, however, as the sinister stories that first reached the city have not died down, and the position of bodies indicate a possible new angle in the case. Mrs. Ridell’s grandson was questioned for hours yesterday, but reiterated the duel story.

Government Holes, however, has had its gun duels before. Six years ago it was the scene of the spectacular gun fight between Pat and Roy Woods, father and son, and Bob Holiman. In the fight, Holiman emerged the victor, although not a drop of blood was lost.

Water Hole Was Cause of Feud

Pat Woods and his son, Roy, were cowboys employed by the Rock Springs company. And again it was the rights to the water holes and the enmity between the “little men” against the Rock Springs company that led to the duel. It was commonly known that Roy Woods practiced shooting by killing jack-rabbits with his six-shooter while riding in a flivver and on horse-back And Pat, the father, could break a beer, bottle with his six-shooter 50 yards away.

In the spring during the roundup, Pat and Roy Woods met Bob Holiman on the open range. Pat began shooting and, apparently rattled, missed Holiman. Then Holiman got into action. He shot Pat Woods’ horse out front under him and with a second shot knocked Roy’s hat off his head.

Fate probably saved the Woods from extermination. Holiman was shooting like a sharpshooter when his gun jammed. Holiman’s friends, who were spectators to the duel, shouted to Holiman to “tickle his horse”–sinking the spurs into his horse’s flanks. And Rob “tickled” his horse and galloped away without a return fire from the Woods.

Trial Resembled Movie Location

The trial in the courts here resembled a moving picture outfit on location. Scores of cowboys of the wide ranges attended and there were no convictions. The Woods, however, left Government Holes and so far as known never returned.

Two years ago, Holiman again figured in tho courts in a case involving the ownership of a calf that he killed. Burts, then one of the stout-hearted men hired by the Rock Springs company to protect their cattle, charged that Holiman killed a Rock Springs calf and sold the beef at Needles. Holiman offered no fight when Burts arrested him. In this case, Holiman was not convicted, the jury disagreeing and the charge dismissed.

It was In this case that Burts’ past life was revealed in open court. Burts, six feet tall, handsome,
and with coal black hair, was a picturesque figure at the trial. On his right hip he wore a six-shooter. When he was called to testify against Holiman, Attorney Ralph E. Swing began a cross-examination

“Have you removed that revolver that you have been toting around?” asked the attorney.

Burts glared back silently.

Did Not Want Witness Armed

“I wish to interrogate this witness,” Attorney Swing told Judge J. W. Curtis, “and I don’t want
him sitting there with a revolver on his hip.”

Burts then arose in his seat, held his coat under his shoulders and
turned around slowly. “I took it off.” he explained.

Then the attorney began questioning Burts.

“Were, you ever convicted of a felony?” he asked.

“Yes, twice,” retorted Burts.

“What was the first offense you were convicted of?” Burts was asked.

“Train robbery.”

“And what were you convicted for the second time?”

“For shooting a fellow.”

Burts then explained that he was sentenced to serve five years for the train robbery and was pardoned after serving six months. This was in Arizona. On the second offense, he was sentenced to serve 10 years and was pardoned by the governor after serving five months, he said. That was years ago, Burts said.

His Brother Deputy Sheriff

Burts has a brother, Tom Burts, a deputy sheriff, living at Tucson. The brother yesterday wired Sheriff Shay asking that the body be forwarded to Tucson.

Little is known of Robert’s past history. Walter S. Greening, president of the Rock Springs company, said last night that he did not know where Robert came from, but that he was sent to Rock Springs “because he wouldn’t run.”

And he didn’t.

San Bernardino Sun Newspaper Headline

San Bernardino Sun Newspaper Headline

 

This story first appeared in The San Bernardino Daily Sun — November 10, 1925