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Mendocino Outlaws: The Pursuit into Tehama County

That morning following the shootout at Rattlesnake Creek, Doc and Andy Bowman found the tracks of their prey's mounts on the hill to the east. They had gone but a quarter mile farther on the trail when a boy from the Ray house ran down to them with the message that the three outlaws had forced their way in, demanding to be fed breakfast.

Making straight for the Ray place, Standley found the outlaws departed, the Rays unharmed, and Billings, Brown, and Gaunce reportedly headed in the direction of Blue Rock.

The three killers, indeed, passed within five hundred yards of Blue Rock, but turned south into a canyon. Therein they spotted the old Holman cabin, abandoned except for occasional use by herders. The outlaws believed they had left the posse behind at Rattlesnake Creek. Of course, they had not met the like of Doc Standley and young Andy Bowman for tracking. 

Devoid of supplies, Billings, Brown, and Gaunce chanced entry into the cabin. They found no one present and made off with a frying pan and a small sack of flour. Onward, southeasterly, to the next branch of the Eel River. They crossed and rode up to the ridge that separated the stream from Round Valley. Riding the ridge north beyond Bell Springs Creek, they chanced upon the McDonald place and Mr. McDonald himself. The rancher possessed a rifle, though he did not point it directly at the riders. Brown said, “We been out hunting and got burned out of camp.”

Seeing McDonald unmoved, the ex-convict added, “On our way to Round Valley for a fresh outfit.”

McDonald urged them to be on their way. The outlaws asked if he had any ammunition to spare. McDonald refused to oblige and the three strangers rode on.

Following a ridgeback to the northeast, they hit the North Fork of the Eel. They rode the north side of the river until they met the trail from Round Valley running north toward the Horse Ranch. A mere half mile north of this fork of the Eel, Billings, Brown, and Gaunce struck upon the Abijah Ackerley place with only Mrs. Ackerley at home. Minding their manners, they asked if they could water their horses at the trough. Mrs. Ackerley assented and when Billings pointed out the breed of her fenced in cow she fetched him a glass of milk. Brown and Gaunce settled for fresh water.

The killers of Mendocino posse men palavered genially, giving the impression they were bound for the Horse Ranch. Mr. Ackerley finally appeared and the threesome bade a hasty retreat.

They rode north until out of sight of the Ackerleys then turned east. Men and horses passed John White's cabin, veered a bit south, and kept close to the North Fork Eel until dusk enshrouded them. They ensnared a grouse, but it didn't seem enough of a meal for three weary bandits. An unfortunate sheep crossed their path only to end up butchered and a meal roasted on a cut branch over an open fire. 

Next morning they rode on to Summit Valley where members of the Asbill family obliged with a full meal. From there the killers turned north along the Weaverville trail. Unbeknownst to the outlaws, a sixteen man posse formed in Round Valley to intercept them. Ironically, Billings, Brown, and Gaunce's next stop turned out to be the Wathen ranch. The owner, John Wathen, proved to be a leader of that Round Valley posse. The outlaws received directions to a cabin farther east, but their attempt to purchase a side of bacon went unanswered, in part because they spotted a man on horseback with a rifle and two other fully rigged and saddled horses. 

The hungry criminals bid a hasty retreat. They searched for the cabin they believed to be unoccupied, but nevertheless stocked with provisions. However, their lack of familiarity with the topography led to a cold night camping in the wild not far from Lightfoot Creek. 

The man with the rifle at the ranch proved to be another member of the Covelo posse. That full crew followed to the cabin the outlaws sought and in the darkness surrounded the criminals in their blankets only a few hundred yards to the south. John Wathen and another fellow crawled within a few feet of the outlaws' dwindling campfire. However, other posse leaders decided to wait until morning to perform an ambush or an attempt to capture their quarry. 

The fire burned out and when dawn lit the scene no trace of Billings, Brown, and Gaunce. They'd slipped through a gap in the posse to a ridge above the cabin.

It remained unknown whether the outlaws sensed impending peril or simply moved on in the dark oblivious to the posse. Regardless, the trio followed that ridge to a trail alongside the south fork of the Mad River in Trinity County. They meandered a few miles downstream to spend the night in a vacant cabin. To their good fortune, it contained blankets and some flour.

By this time, Standley's and Moore's posses had joined up with the Covelo searchers. Standley recounted how he arrived at the Asbill place a day after the outlaws. He and Andy Bowman started after their prey only to lose the trace within a few miles. Returning to the Asbills' home, Doc employed an Indian known as Buck Shot to the whites. He led Bowman from Summit Valley on a barely visible and sometimes invisible track to an eventual halt at a burned out campfire. Buck Shot said, “White men camped here.”

“How do you know that?” Doc asked.

Buck Shot displayed grouse bones he dug from the ashes and showed Standley where tiny bits of meat still existed. He added that if Indians camped there, the bones would be utterly bare.

The combined posses found the outlaws' trail and formed another ambuscade. Apparently without seeing the posse ahead, the outlaws turned and headed back north along the stream to the three forks of the Mad River then continued several more miles north near the middle fork. They traversed these miles cross country, on horseback and afoot leading their mounts. They turned west, climbing to a ridge, followed by another descent to the middle Mad, crossing that same fork once more before heading east where they struck the trail over Yolla Bolly. 

They also struck three days of snow, sleet, and rain. So did the posse. They were down to thirty pounds of flour and no feed for the horses. A decision was made to send everyone back to Covelo except Moore, Standley, Andy Bowman, Charley Sheppard, the rancher John Wathen, and another deputy. 

On Monday, November 3rd a majority of the posse reached Covelo, reporting the difficult conditions of tracking nearly non-stop through steep, brushy terrain and in foul weather with provisions declining. The posse men declared their faith in their leaders, particularly local man, John Wathen; however, the story that led the news coming back to Ukiah and the coast was the failure of the two “ambuscades.” The Ukiah City Press authored a scathing editorial about the failure to capture the three outlaws when a posse of nearly twenty armed men let the desperadoes escape not once but twice.

Sheriff Moore sent a man into Tehama County to procure supplies and warn folks of the expected appearance of the gang of three. That mission was accomplished at the home of stock dealer Christopher Columbus Pettyjohn near the headwaters of the Cold Fork of Cottonwood Creek. Additional provisions caught up to Moore, Standley, Bowman et al. when Sheriff-elect Donohoe arrived with a pack horse full of food.

It took six days of hard travel, in miserably wet conditions, to traverse this rugged portion of the coast range. Horses, men, and one mule bore up, continuing the manhunt into Tehama.

After the posse man left with much needed supplies, Mr. Pettyjohn, a tough survivor of twenty years as a settler starting a family amid the remote gulches and creeks north and west of Red Bluff, prepared himself and his family for a possible encounter with the outlaw trio. He armed his twelve and thirteen year old sons, Leo and Lum, as well as a local schoolmaster with hand guns and rifles in rooms whose doors opened up onto a clear view of the dining table.

The next day, at dawn, the eldest Pettyjohn child, fifteen year old Lena, spotted three riders approaching from the west as her mother prepared breakfast. Lena stepped from the front porch to greet them. When they requested a meal, she agreed as long as they left their rifles on the porch. 

Billings, Brown and Gaunce obliged, seating themselves at the dining table, where Mrs. Pettyjohn had placed all the plates, bowls, and silverware side by side by side, so the strangers sat with their backs to the room in which Mr. Pettyjohn stood armed. Mrs. Pettyjohn began serving the morning meal as her husband walked in from behind the gang. He inquired about how her health, as she had been feeling a bit low lately, then he retreated to the back room. 

Billings, for one, noticed the sidearm Mr. Pettyjohn packed. After she filled the gang's plates and left all the fixings on the table, Mrs. Pettyjohn stepped away. The backroom door creaked open. Engrossed in their meal, the outlaws scarcely noticed C.C. Pettyjohn sidle up to his wife, trying with body language to encourage her to exit the premises. She too seemed preoccupied, washing dishes with such nervous intent she missed her husband's cues, so he exited a second time.

Many bites later, Pettyjohn opened the back room door once again. As he entered the dining area, Billings reached under the table and drew his revolver from its holster.

(Coming soon: What transpired at Pettyjohn's on the Cold Fork of Cottonwood Creek. … More true west drama at


  1. James Luther April 30, 2021

    Riveting story, and well told too.

  2. George Dorner May 1, 2021

    James Luther, you stole my line. It is one heck of a story.

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