This poem encapsulates the true story of Bill’s life.
That’s what’s scratched on this headstone, just a plain ol’ rock of brown –
In a lonely cemetery, in a little Wyoming town . . .
As I stand here with these flowers, his face is fuzzy in my brain,
But, I can see his Rochelle Hills, forty miles distant through the rain,
When I lift my eyes and face the West. Yep, he loved those hills….
Shall I tell you, what I can, of this man they called 4W Bill?
His story starts down in Texas, what little of it that we know . . .
Him sittin’ a’straddle a wagon tongue, his young heart filled with woe.
‘Bout daylight, a feller come, in a rented rig from town,
An,’ spyin’ this here little lad, his forehead creased up in a frown.
“Hey, there young sprout – who the heck are you? An’ what’cha doin’ here?
Loiterin’ ‘round my wagon, prob’ly plund’rin’ through my gear?
Though the quiv’rin chin touched tiny chest, tears could still be seen,
A’ coursin’ down the boy’s lean cheeks, pushin dust ahead of their stream;
Then, with a determined shiver, he reared back an’ lifted his head.
As he fixed the man with his bravest stare, this is what he said:
“Mister, my name is Bill.” “Well, tell me, what’s yore other name?”,
Come back like a shot; this man had no time, to play a small boy’s game.
The child (who looked to be four or five), vowed that he didn’t have one –
“Just Bill,” he mumbled . . . stretching like a cat, warmed by the rising sun.
As Bill slid off the wagon tongue, it seemed he found his voice,
An’ told the man he’d been left by some cowboys, who gave him no choice….
“They found me, an’ then I lived with them, an’ I was mighty happy,
For a roundup home . . . an’ fam’ly . . . since I’d lost my Mam an’ Pappy.”
“But when we come here, they was upset. Said the outfit sold….
They went sep’rate ways, to search for jobs, ‘fore the winter comes on, cold.
They said someone bought this wagon, teams an’ harness, the cattle too;
They made me promise to wait here for him – Mister, would that be you?”
This busy man pushed back his hat, reached up to scratch his head . . .
What in the heck could he do with a boy, whose parents both were dead?
He was here to inspect the wagon, teams an’ harnesses an’ such –
Then get ‘em started trailin’ with the cattle . . . had to do so much….
Yet two bright eyes pinioned him . . . an’ the question hung on air….
He couldn’t leave an orphan behind . . . or . . . why should he really care?
Here he was in Texas, with an outfit to get to Wyoming . . .
Yet he couldn’t run from those big eyes, so hurting, and so homing
“I’ll tell ya’ boy,” he ventured, “I’m lookin’ to hire a hand,
A hand who’s always honest, one that’s willin’ to ride for the brand.
A hand that’s got some savvy, plenty of talent, plenty of tough;
One that won’t get soft an’ quit me, if things should get pretty rough.”
The lad at first just hung his head, then took a great big gulp,
He turned an’ looked the man in the eye. “Would ya’ beat me to a pulp?
If I was kind’a short on savvy, or on talent, like you say?
If I couldn’t stick your rankest bronc, or sometime got in the way?”
“’Cuz I can swear I’m honest, an’ I sure enough am tuff,
I know about ridin for the brand, an’ not quittin’ when it’s ruff.”
The busy Wyoming ranch foreman couldn’t help but be impressed,
By this brave response from one small lad, so obviously distressed.
So he bade the boy come with him – on Texas turn his back –
And take the long trek to Wyoming, on that endless cattle track.
Bill reached the 4W Ranch on horseback, an’ came to love the place,
Became a horseman and a stockman, one who cast a loop with grace.
He was such a part of the ranch, the brand stuck to his name –
The way he rode horses in Johnson halters added to his fame.
4W Bill made pony tracks all up and down the Rochelle Hills,
Across the breaks both north and south of where the Cheyenne River spills.
Him, and most of the ones who knew him, passed on long ago;
From childhood, I vaguely remember him, an’ wish that I could know
The rest of his story – much more of his life….
Rescued by cowboys on a roundup crew in Texas after somehow losing his parents, the outfit was subsequently sold and the hands left him with wagons and harness in hopes the new owner would take him on and give him a home – which he did. The outfit probably reached Wyoming around 1914.
Bill Heilscher from Colorado went to work at the AU7 ranch on the Cheyenne River when he was 15 years old and soon met 4W Bill and is the source of most of this information. The AU7 is just down the river a few miles from the 4W and Heilscher got to ride with 4W Bill quite a lot, and later worked on ranches with him.
4W Bill was kind of legend in the Rochelle Hill and Cheyenne River country and on south to the Manville country. Some recall he rode with the Buffalo Bill Show for a time. He was especially known for never riding a horse in anything but a Johnson halter, and making good using horses.
The 4W Ranch on the Cheyenne River was running thousands of Longhorn steers around 1870, then owned by J.W. Hammond. E.T. Turner and his father-in-law Bob Douglas probably owned it when 4W Bill came there from the Manville area in 1917. They took in a lot of the Cheyenne River near its headwaters, and the Rochelle Hills country and ran thousands of head, trailing them in from places like Manville, and often trailing them to Dewey, SD to ship.
1917 news items speak of 4W Bill riding to the LAK Ranch, which lies east of Newcastle, a good 60-70 miles from the 4W, to pick up some “blooded stock” and trail back to the 4W – others speak of big bunches of cattle being trailed in from Manville, again 60 miles or further away. That kind of work would’ve been commonplace throughout Bill’s lifetime.
Bill Heilscher recalled 4W Bill in his 70’s putting a rough string rider in his place. After he’d hired the kid for the job he came to breakfast one day bellyaching about a certain rank horse that shouldn’t be in anybody’s string, how dangerous he was, etc. 4W Bill told him to pipe down, to which he replied, “Oh, I s’pose you think YOU could ride him, old man!” To which 4W calmly replied that he could. After breakfast he caught the horse, put him in the round corral, put the Johnson halter and his saddle on him and rode him to a standstill. Then he stepped off and told the young man to roll his bed and get off the outfit. Heilscher was there and personally witnessed this; and said 4W continued to ride and cowboy for some time.
My dad knew 4W Bill well, and deeply respected and liked him. I remember him and his big white moustache when I was a little kid. He spent his last days at a home where they cared for old people at Sundance, WY. I recall us visiting him there once and Bill complaining he couldn’t find his hat. Dad jumped the women running the place out about it and they said they threw it away because every time he’d get hold of it he’d put it on and go uptown and he wouldn’t come back . . . but if he didn’t have his hat he wouldn’t leave the house. Dad went and bought him a new hat and threatened the women he’d better never catch up with them taking it away from Bill again, because a cowboy needs his hat.