05/14/2013 08:10 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Bethany Allison Sanford


Darkness surrounded the ranch buildings. From within the house a lantern's feeble light shone through an open door and window. In this late hour the light spread a dusty halo into the cold night air. Minutes earlier the door had been flung open and sounds came from the house--terrible sounds. Now it was quiet.

Bethany Allison Sanford lay sprawled on the rough wood floor gazing blankly at her husband Eli. Blood trickled from her mouth--and though her senses were swimming, Bethany resolved that he would never beat her again. The husband sat at the kitchen table and drunkenly shoveled dinner into his face. When he'd had enough, Eli elbowed the dishes onto the floor and stood laughing as he kicked the broken pieces at his wife. Reeling into the bedroom, he lay down and vomited before passing out.

Bethany Sanford, long-suffering and eager for revenge, dragged herself to the kitchen sink and splashed dirty water on her face. She took the lantern from the table and peered around the corner at her husband. He lay snoring on their bed. Bethany set the lantern by the doorway and walked quietly round the bedroom. The flame cast the huge bulk of Eli's shadow on the far wall.

Bethany stared at the strew of vomit lying inches from Eli's face. A fitting end, she thought, to their anniversary dinner. She regretted the mistake, wanting a celebration, mentioning the occasion when her husband arrived home drunk. After all these years Bethany still wondered, Why can't I bear him children? He beat her the first time when Dr. Clayton said she could not have children. They both wanted, needed offspring--all their kin struck down by the cholera. She'd held off the lonesomeness by throwing herself into the ranch work. For reasons she never understood, Bethany's ministrations to her husband and their success at ranching had made Eli even more scornful, yet she continued her attempts to please him.

On their bed her husband stirred. Bethany knew this had to be the last beating--another and she would be broken, never to mend. With unrelenting hatred welling in her breast, she stalked outside to the woodpile and pulled a length of uncut firewood from the dark stack. Carrying the four-foot long pine branch back to the bedroom, Bethany quietly placed it on the floor. She murmured soothingly to her husband as she wrapped him tightly in the top blanket. She left the retchings undisturbed next to his head.

Bethany quickly pulled the blanket's loose end over Eli's head, pushing the vomit against his face. He struggled and awoke cursing. She swung the firewood over her head. It stopped in mid-swing, thudding in the rafters. Afraid he would twist free, she battered her husband's head with the rough end until he lay still, then rushed to the woodpile and hurriedly found a shorter piece.

Eli did not move when Bethany prodded him, so she took the pan of water from the sink, uncovered his bloody head, and doused his face. He came to with an angry bellow. She smashed him across the chest, a spew of pain and spittle blew from his mouth.

Bethany set about beating her husband until she could no longer lift her arms.

She caught her breath and rested. But Bethany had not finished thrashing Eli; she tugged at the blanket and rolled him onto the floor. There he lay facedown while his wife beat him thoroughly across his broad back and legs. Exhausted, Bethany took the revolver from the shelf, cocked it, and held it close while she dozed on the bed.

Next morning she awoke to the sound of her husband's moans as he struggled into painful consciousness. Bethany tried dragging him from the house, but he was too heavy. She trussed his hands and feet, strapped on the revolver, then went to the barn and saddled her horse. She led Whiskey back to the house and tied two lassos together, cinching one end around her husband's feet. Next, she strung the rope through the house and tied a half-hitch over the saddle horn. The horse pulled Eli Sanford out of the bedroom, over the broken dishes, and into the front room. There he grappled with the rug, bunching it around him for protection. As he snaked through the house, the rug caught in the front-door threshold. Whiskey leaned against the weight, pulling the man onto the porch. Eli lay groaning while his wife sat astride the horse. She stared back at him with loathing.

"I will kill you," shouted Eli through bloody cracked lips.

Bethany spurred the horse, jerked Eli from the porch and onto the dusty yard. At a trot, she dragged him to the corral, looped the rope over the gatepost, spurred her horse again and suspended Eli by his feet. He screamed savagely in pain and anger as Bethany worked Whiskey back along the corral where she reined the horse next to the fence. Now dismounting, she walked deliberately to the barn and returned with a hammer and nails. Bethany nailed the rope to the fence, untied the lassos, and coiled the free rope onto her saddle.

She watched her husband struggle weakly against the rails, his fingers reaching, barely scraping the ground. Satisfied that he was too injured to pull himself up and ignoring his cries, she set out for the wrangler camp. A short distance down the road Bethany met five of her Indian wranglers heading to the ranch for the day's work. The lead rider, the foreman--a Crow named Walks-Straight--touched his mouth when he saw Bethany. She felt her cheek then, suddenly realizing how much her face hurt.

"Mrs. Sanford?" he said. The question hung in the morning air. The other riders stopped a few yards away, looking up the road at the ranch buildings, trying not to stare at Bethany. The horses stamped and muttered impatiently.

"Eli's trussed up by the corral," she said, words slurred from her swollen mouth. "Leave him there 'til I'm gone. Cut out half the herd, the best ones, and help me load the wagon." Now all the riders stared at her.

"I need three drovers to go with me. Bring your families if you want."

"Where to?" Walks-Straight asked.

"Canada, north of Sweet Grass. They got free winter grazing up there. We'll ship 'em next spring when prices are high. On that railroad they're buildin'."

The men worked feverishly for several hours. By early afternoon, four hundred cattle grazed in the reserve pasture. The Indians carried supplies from the house and outbuildings, quickly filling the largest wagon. Bethany stood in the yard supervising; she pointed to the small wagon. "Take that one, too," she told the workers. "We're traveling and Eli ain't."

Eli Sanford had not moved since morning; the flies worked at his face. Bethany cut him down and ordered a woman to revive him. "Clean up the son-of-a-bitch," she said, "but keep him tied. Leave him there."

With the cattle drive set to travel, Bethany mounted Whiskey, cocked her revolver, and aimed it at her husband. He lay on the ground with his eyes closed, a feed sack under his head. She fired a close round; dirt scattered against his face. Terrified, he opened his eyes.

"I'm taking what's mine," she told him. The horse huffed backwards at the shot, nostrils flaring. "If you follow me, I'll kill you. Half this outfit belongs to me, an' I'll be back in June to claim it." Bethany quieted Whiskey and holstered her gun. "We're only four riders, so I'm taking the dogs. I know you care for that big one better 'an me. Next spring you'll get him back." She hard-turned Whiskey in place, touching her spurs to the horse's side. He trotted briskly from the corral.

Walks-Straight and a strong hand, Awaxa, along with Bethany and a fourteen-year-old boy--big enough to do a man's work--hazed the cattle from the pasture. The cow dogs moved with the horsemen, working the stragglers. Indian women drove the wagons. One wagon led the herd, the other trailed behind, off to one side to avoid the dust, stringing the extra horses.

They camped that night at the edge of the ranch, heading north the next day across the bleak, south Montana plain. On the third morning, Bethany told the crew, "Just keep 'em moving. I've got to make a call in Bear Creek."

She rode the yellow-aspen hillside along the Silver Tip drainage, then over the top into the river valley that lead to Bear Creek. When she trotted up to the only attorney's office in town, Bethany scowled at the sign covering the narrow front window: CLOSED IN SEPTEMBER. She went to see the sheriff.

"By God, Beth, you get kicked by your horse?" Sheriff Dan Haskell asked. He thought to remind her that women weren't allowed to ride cross-saddle in town, but kept his silence.

"Eli did this to me," she said. "I want a divorce and half the ranch. I already got half the cows." He looked at her, questioning. "I'm going to winter them in Canada, Dan."

The sheriff shook his head. He'd known Beth and Eli for fifteen years. Knew both families. They came west from St. Louis, settled here and ranched together, made peace with the hostiles, and sold cattle to the army and settlers. Then a wagon train brought the cholera that killed their parents, Beth's brother and cousin, and Eli's brother--all except Eli's father. The year following, the old man drank himself to death.

"Mrs. Sanford, no woman's ever got a divorce in Montana Territory," the sheriff said. "It just ain't done. Might not even be legal."

"Now it's come to this," Bethany said with menace, removing her hat. "My face looking like this ain't legal either. But that's my testimony." She touched the revolver on her hip. "Daniel, either you take this up with the goddamn lawyer when he gets back, or I'll kill Eli when I get back."

"No, no, don't do that." He reached for his hat. "We'll go over to the clerk's office. Someone there can witness and write out a statement."

Later, not wishing to be where people stared at her, Bethany rode west from town, winding her way up the treeless hill that separates Bear Creek from the settlement of Red Lodge. On the hilltop she stopped to gaze at the thunderheads building over the mountains, turned north and, avoiding the town below, rode the long ridge for several miles until she reached a cut made by a stream feeding the river. Looking further north, Bethany spotted a plume of dust drifting near the horizon--the cattle drive, she guessed--then noticed a fine meadow on the river bottom. The meadow lay in the evening shadows spreading east from the mountains.

Enough riding for today, thought Bethany. She skidded Whiskey down the dusty breaks and onto the trail that bordered the river. A warm breeze blew from the peaks to the west as she made camp by the quietly flowing water. She set the horse to graze on a long tether in the open, grassy flat, stripped off her clothes, and bathed in a nearby backwater pool. The dry cottonwood sticks and leaf-litter fire jumped quickly to life as Bethany dried herself. After dressing she sat in the circle of firelight, eating cold biscuits and dried meat, listening to Whiskey forage in the dark meadow, the fire's soft crackle mixing with the night sounds from the river.

Sometime during the night--after the moon had set--Whiskey became restless and Bethany woke up. She could hear a rider's footfalls on the river trail against the bluffs. The distant horse nickered; Whiskey answered from the dark. As she lay on the ground, now uncomfortable and without sleep, her rage at Eli turned to regret and fear. She wondered, Did I do wrong by taking the cattle, will there be grass up north to last the winter, and will that Great Falls rail line ship cows by spring? Well, she concluded, they could always drive the cattle back to the ranch. Part her ranch. And now Eli was her enemy.

Finally Bethany drifted into sleep--a comfortless sleep of dreams where she rode Whiskey across Eli's body, stomping him to a broken pulp. There beneath the horse he lay crushed and bleeding; cursing, refusing to die.

As dawn first colored the sky, a flock of white pelicans, their wings hissing in the still morning air, eased into the backwater. They muddled in the water, fishing. Bethany awoke and drew her pistol from under the slicker. Resting the gun across her saddle, she shot the nearest bird. It flopped and splashed for a moment as the others launched skyward, frantically pumping their wings. Bethany glanced over at Whiskey who galloped to the end of the tether, then snorted and jumped against the rope.

"There's breakfast," she commented. The pelican floated motionless just twenty feet from shore. "I'm not getting wet this morning," she said to Whiskey, mounting him bareback and using the halter rope for a makeshift bridle. The horse waded slowly into the water and drank, but refused to go near the dead bird.

Bethany kicked the horse and shouted angrily, "Get to it, you son-of-a-bitch." But Whiskey reared and crawfished backwards, his waves nudging the bird close to the current. She turned the horse back to the bank, quickly dismounted and grabbed a cottonwood branch gnawed clean by river animals and bleached white in the sun. As they approached the pelican for a second time, Whiskey, just as skittish as before, pawed a front hoof in the muddy water. Bethany broke the stick over the horse's head, then kicked him toward the bird. With the broken limb, she reached for her freshly killed breakfast. Whiskey bolted sideways and dumped her into the river.

Sputtering and swearing, Bethany waded to shore, carrying the dead bird, pulling the horse behind her.

Not long after, she ate breakfast while her clothes hung by the fire.

"That was one damn rank fish bird," Bethany told Whiskey as she saddled him, pulling the cinch as hard as she could, "and certainly not worth another bath." Still fuming over the dunking, her clothes wet and uncomfortable, she pushed Whiskey hard and caught the cattle drive in the late afternoon. She rode up behind the back wagon. Bethany mopped the sweat and dust from her face. "Rein 'em in," she told the driver, then selected a gray roan from the string and tied Whiskey in his place. She saddled the roan, retied her hair, and left Whiskey with a final curse. Loping around the edge of the herd, she slowed her horse by the lead wagon.

"Let's make a few miles before sunset," Bethany yelled to the Indian woman who sat high on the wagon seat. She wheeled the gray and, with sun filtered orange through the swirling dust, Bethany Allison Sanford galloped off to help the riders.

Based on historical facts, this story is dedicated to Montana pioneer and rancher Bethany Allison Sanford. In 1887 Bethany became one of the first women to obtain a divorce in Montana Territory. Sanford's half-year exodus from her ranch near present-day Elk Basin, Wyoming, was only the beginning of her remarkable saga. Bethany Sanford's name is fictional--her family would not permit the author to use her real name.