Shootout at Hualipi Flats

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SHOOTOUT AT HUALIPI FLATS

By Gary B. Horton

Hualipi Flats, Nevada, Is a place that few people know about. Still fewer, perhaps, remember a gunfight that took place there back in 1915. In fact, so few people remember that it has become an obscure footnote in history even though it had many of the elements of the more famous gunfights that have made their way into western lore. There are, of course, good reasons why this one became a gunfight that nobody remembered.

First of all you have to consider the location. Hualipi Flats is a sparsely populated area located in a remote section Nevada north of the Black Rock Desert, about twenty-five miles northeast of Gerlach. Prior to 1909, virtually the only inhabitants of Hualipi Flats were buckaroos at the Gerlach Land & Livestock Company's Fly and Granite Ranches, a few sheepherders, and a smattering of prospectors punching shallow holes in the nearby hills.

Still another reason this gunfight never got any publicity was the fact there were no newspapers serving area, and consequently no reporters to color up the shooting in a fashion that would one day qualify it for the annals of the West's famous gunfights.

That this gunfight happened at all can be traced to two unrelated events that took place in 1909 and coalesce to set the stage for a duel between neighbors six years later. The first of these events was the completion of the Western Pacific Railroad through Nevada. This allowed easy access to the Black Rock Desert Region for the first time. The second was the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 which allowed people to homestead larger tracts of land, 320 acres as opposed to 160 acres, in semiarid regions of the West. Had it not been for the happenstance joining of these two events, Hualipi Flats might never have become the setting for a gunfight. As it were, the population between 1909-1915 grew rapidly from a handful of people to a dozen or more families with enough school aged children to justify two schools, one in Washoe County and the other in Humboldt County.

Also playing a part in this rapid buildup of homesteader population was the relative, for Nevada, abundance of available water at Hualipi Flats. The valley is fed by several small creeks coming off the Granite range and also endowed with a number of natural springs.

Thus, easy access, government land reform and available water made Hualipi Flats a hotbed of homesteader activity after 1909 as men began laying claims to both land and water. Under this scenario of competition for these precious resources it was probably inevitable that frictions would develop and fester between neighbors to the point where taking up arms against one another seemed like the only logical way to settle their differences. And so it was, with Cheat Finley and Jeff Brown during the late summer of 1915.

The 51-year-old Finley had taken up a homestead at Hualipi in 1910, having moved his wife and eight kids from Cedarville, California to try for a fresh start with a spread of his own. He and his oldest son, 10-year-old John, traveled from Cedarville to Hualipi in a wagon laden with their belongings and pulled by a team of horses. The other eight member of the family traveled by train into Gerlach where they were met by Cheat and John and taken to their new homestead at Hualipi Flats in the family wagon.

In later life son John recalled that life on the family homestead was never very prosperous and by 1915 it had been five years of barely eking out a living. Moreover, late summer had brought some special problems for the elder Finley and stemmed directly from a parcel of fenced grazing pasture that Finley claimed had been left in his charge by its owner, Mont Hutchinson and which Finley grazed his horses. However, Hutchinson was later (at the Hearing regarding the shooting) to deny that he ever owned or claimed any property within five miles of this pasture. This mystery of ownership of the disputed pasture remains today, as none of the available records or the recollections of those with knowledge of the gunfight provide an answer.

In any event, one of Finley's neighbors had obviously taken exception to the horses being there and had run them into the barbed wire fence. A neighbor, Mr. Nixon, recounted that, "The mare was cut up and she went into the hills and died." On still another occasion one of the remaining horses had been shot with a shotgun and wounded. These episodes, involving the horses, so infuriated Finley, that he began confronting and accusing several of his neighbors of carrying out these misdeeds.

One such neighbor was Jeff Brown, a homesteader that had arrived at Hualipi Flats about the same time as Finley and whose homestead was adjacent to the dispute pasture. To compound the animosity between Finley and Brown was the fact that they had recently been feuding over a fence that Brown had attached to the corner post to the disputed pasture. Indeed, according to lifetime area rancher, Clyde Fisk, who was a youngster at the time of the shooting, says that it was this fence dispute that led to the showdown between the two and not the instances of Finley's horses being mistreated. Moreover, the fence dispute, as a causative factor in the ensuing gunfight, is somewhat corroborated by John Warren, a neighbor of both Finley and Brown, who later testified at the Hearing that Finley had told him he, Finley, "was going to tell Brown to take his fence loose from Mr. Hutchinson's corner post." In spite of this it remains that the shooting of the horse may have still been a central causative factor, at least on the day prior to the fatal showdown.

On the day prior to the showdown Finley and a daughter, in the company of John Warren, had gone to Brown's place to ask if he'd shot the horse. Brown replied "I did not." To which Finley allegedly replied, "well, if you did, you are a god-damned son-of-a-bitch!" Brown, according to Warren, did not become angry at this outburst of profanity and denied, several times, having anything to do with the shooting. These repeated denials did not seem to satisfy Finley, according to Warren, and at one point Finley invited Brown to fight it out right then and there with guns as he was too broken up from being stepped on by a cow to fight with fists. Brown declined the invitation and again denied shooting the horse. At this point Warren said he was able to talk Finley into leaving Brown's place. Warren also testified that on the same evening Finley came by Warrens own homestead and told Warren that he was going down tomorrow to check on the horses in the pasture and if anyone was molesting them he would "shoot the son-of-a-bitch."

The following morning, September 9th, broke crisp and clear. Finley arose early, saddled his horse, grabbed his 25-35 rifle and rode away from his homestead about half past six. He told his wife he was "going up alongside Mr. Hutchinson's south fence to fix the fence."

About the same time, a couple of miles away, Brown finished his morning chores, picked up his 16 gauge shotgun and left home to hunt jackrabbits for use as bait on his trap line. He hadn't gone more than about three hundred yards when he saw someone coming down Hutchinson's fence on a horse. As the rider drew nearer, Brown recognized Finley and tensed up remembering yesterday's confrontation. Finley also recognized Brown and turned his horse and come riding toward Brown. When they were within about 15 to 20 feet of each other they halted their horses and exchanged good mornings. Finley remarked that "my horses are still on the ranch." To which Brown replied, "Yes, they are still here and no one is bothering them, but I am going in to see Judge Norton and see if there isn't a law to make you get those horses off of here." To which Finley allegedly countered. "Listen you degraded son-of-a-bitch, this old rifle is good enough law for me and I am going to kill you or you will me."

At that point Finley began to raise his rifle. A fraction of a second later two shots, in quick succession, shattered the quiet morning air. Almost in unison with the sound of the second shot Finley and his horse collapsed in a heap and Brown, still holding his smoking gun, dove behind some brush. Almost as quickly as it fell, the horse scrambled to its feet with a serious but not fatal wound in the neck. Finley tried to get up but immediately slumped back to the ground, dead from a gaping hole in his left chest where part of his heart had been blown away by the savage force of No. 6 shot at close range. His rifle lay on the ground next to him, fully loaded but with the safety still on. Both shots had come from Browns shotgun.

When he realized what he'd done and that Finley was never going to get up, Brown took off running to his father-in-law, Alex Barker's place to report what had happened. The word then spread quickly throughout the valley and within a short time most people had heard of the shooting. The Salt Marsh Constable, Scott Butler and Justice of the Peace, Harry Norton were summoned from Gerlach and an inquest was held at the shooting site. Butler then went to Brown's place and arrested him on suspicion of murder and took him to the Gerlach jail.

Neighbor's carried Finley's body to his home where it was prepared for burial. John Bruce, a neighbor who had spent three years in the Army's medical corps, dressed, packed and put a patch over the wound to prevent seepage. Louis Gregory, another neighbor, hastily built a wooden casket and on the following day, September 10th, Finley was taken to Gerlach and buried in the tiny windswept cemetery just north of town. His headstone, made of durable granite, can still be read today.

On September 20, 1915, a Preliminary Hearing was held before Justice of The Peace, Harry Norton, in Gerlach to see if Brown should be bound over on a charge of murder. The State of Nevada was represented by Washoe County District Attorney, L.A. Dunson and Brown represented himself. In addition to the gathering of all the pertinent facts about the shooting, a major focus of the hearing was on whether or not Finley was a quarrelsome man.

Several witnesses and neighbors of Finley, including J.S. Bryant, J.E. Heward, Mr. Nixon, Oliver Iveson and John Warren, all characterized Finley as a quarrelsome man. Only Mont Hutchinson saw Finley as a peaceable man and Constable Scott Butler was neutral when he said, "I never saw either one them misbehave since I had known them." In the end it was the evidence which showed that Finley had tried to force Brown into a fight on the previous day which caused the District Attorney to recommend that Brown not be charge with any crime. Justice of The Peace Norton accepted the recommendation and set Brown free.

Brown and his wife Lucy (they had no children) left the area shortly after but returned to Gerlach many years later. Although a number of people remember Jeff Brown after his return to the Gerlach area, none knew where or how he spent his time between the shooting and his subsequent return to Gerlach. After returning to Gerlach Brown was known to have worked on several ranches, including Clyde Fisk's ranch near Squaw Valley north of Gerlach.

Jeff Brown's own end came at Gerlach in 1949 of "Acute Alcoholism" according to his Death Certificate and his only lasting legacy, aside from being the man who killed Cheat Finley, seems to have been that of being an enigma, even to those who professed to know him.

SOURCES USED IN ARTICLE

  • Washoe County Case #110606, Jeff Brown vs The State of Nevada
  • Jeff Brown Death Certificate, Nevada Historical Society, Reno, NV
  • Geological Survey Maps of the Black Rock Desert Region
  • Weather Service Records, Reno, NV
  • Personal knowledge of the Hualipi Flats area
  • Personal Interviews:
    • John Finley, Orville, CA
    • Ruth Gregory Parman, Reno, NV
    • Bernice Phillips Iveson, Sutcliff, NV
    • Clyde W. Fisk, Gerlach, NV
    • Mary Jeakins Horton, Reno
    • Cecil Jeakins, Reno, NV
    • James "Bouncer" Grimes, Kingston, NV
    • Lee C. Carter, Reno, NV
    • Ralph Parman, Reno, NV