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Charlie Russell's painting "Smoke of a .45" captures a small-town gunfight much like the February 1884 shootout at Stoneville, Montana Territory. (World History Group Archive)

George Axelby and his men exited the saloon, drunk and boisterously firing their pistols. The Willard posse poured out of Stone’s house and took up positions as the gang climbed onto their horses. Deputy Fred Willard and outlaw Jack Campbell opened fire at almost the same instant

Outlaw gang leader George Axelby relied on six-shooters and rifles but also had a tendency to shoot off his mouth—a habit that often got him into as much trouble as his use of firearms. In February 1884, Axelby (sometimes seen as Axelbee) learned that his two-bit horse-thieving pal Jesse Pruden had been arrested over in Miles City, Montana Territory, and would soon be transported back to Spearfish, Dakota Territory, to face various criminal charges. Instead of taking immediate action, right or wrong, Axelby couldn’t resist opening his big mouth. He boasted that his gang would see to it Pruden was rescued, going so far as to say he and his associates would, if need be, fight to the last man. His bold threats reached Deputy U.S. Marshal A.M. Willard, who knew all too well Axelby was dangerous and capable of such stupidity.

Captain (or “Cap”) Willard, as he was known for his years of sailing freighters on the Great Lakes, organized a posse in Spearfish. He and fellow Deputies John (“Jack”) O’Harra and Fred Willard (A.M.’s brother), territorial Deputies John Duffy and Frank Jackson, and a cowboy named McNarboe, set out to intercept Axelby before he could carry out his rescue. Fate determined that the posse would catch up to Axelby’s gang at the hamlet of Stoneville, Montana Territory, on Valentine’s Day 1884. The gunfight that followed was no massacre, but it was bloody enough. It showed just how swift frontier justice could be, and its aftermath demonstrated how frustrated lawmen and posse members were just as capable of “roadside” justice as mobs of enraged citizens.

Stoneville, a telegraph relay station on the banks of the Little Missouri River in Custer County, was named for Lew Stone, who in 1877 set up the only saloon in that part of southeastern Montana Territory. The town established a post office in 1880. But another town in the territory had a similar name, leading to confusion with mail delivery. So, in 1885, the year after the Stoneville gunfight, the town was officially renamed Alzada in honor of Alzada Sheldon, the wife of a local pioneer. Alzada survives as a flyspeck on the map in present-day Carter County, about a half-mile east of its original location.

By 1884 Axelby had a reputation in Spearfish, a town founded at the mouth of Spearfish Canyon in 1876 to supply foodstuffs to the Black Hills mining camps. His favorite stamping grounds were the Little Missouri and Powder River country, and area residents regarded him as a scourge. A more accomplished horse thief than Pruden, Axelby was wanted for rustling and for murder. He was known to have a hideout near Devils Tower, and area newspapers compared his band to the former James-Younger Gang of Missouri. Certainly, local lawmen considered him ruthless and were unwilling to take any chances with such a desperado. Axelby apparently had an even greater dislike of Indians than he did lawmen. The February 23, 1884, St. Paul Pioneer Press noted that “his cussedness is directed against the Indians” and that “he never losses [sic] a chance to set them afoot or kill them.”

It is uncertain when George Axelby and Jesse Pruden formed their unlikely friendship. Pruden was the stepson of J.B. Maxwell, respected owner of the Miles City–Spearfish stage line. Instead of following in his stepfather’s footsteps, Pruden had stepped out on his own and found his greatest success in stealing ponies from the Indians. Authorities had openly tolerated his illegal activities for a while, but being kin to Maxwell could not keep him above the law forever. Axelby always traveled with a small band of ne’er-do-wells, and Pruden may have joined them on occasion.

A deputy in Miles City noticed a suspicious character wandering about town in February 1884 and recognized him as Pruden. Miles City Sheriff John W. “Jack” Johnson took him into custody. Pruden was wanted in Dakota Territory but not in Montana Territory, so Johnson telegraphed Spearfish Sheriff Al Raymond, saying he would hold the prisoner until someone came to escort him across the border. Raymond sent Deputy Joe Ryan to retrieve Pruden.

Axelby’s plan to spring Pruden en route to Spearfish may have made sense, but his inability to keep quiet about it was pure foolishness. As usual, the outlaw leader counted on pulling it off with help from his friends. His top henchman was “Billy the Kid” McCarthy, a feisty young fellow quick with a gun and reputedly as fearless as he was fast. (Sheriff Pat Garrett had killed the infamous Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, in July 1881.) Also along was Jack Campbell, perhaps Axelby’s most experienced gang member. Two of the others were unnamed in contemporary news accounts, but Pruden later claimed in a letter to the Miles City newspaper that a character known as Badland Charley (in Willard’s journal as “Broncho Charlie” Brown) was one of them. Willard identified the other as Axel Grady. The sixth man was Axelby associate Harry Tuttle, who was on his way to Miles City and apparently thought it would be safer traveling with this tough crew. He couldn’t have been more wrong, for Deputy U.S. Marshal Willard and his posse were on Axelby’s trail, bound and determined to stop the
bigmouthed outlaw once and for all.

By the afternoon of February 14, 1884, Axelby and his five associates were drinking in the Stoneville Saloon before they made their big move. Tied up out front alongside their own mounts was an extra saddle horse, presumably intended for Pruden to ride after they freed him from Deputy Ryan. Willard and McNarboe arrived in Stoneville about noon and immediately went to Lew Stone’s house, where they learned from Deputies Fred Willard and Jack O’Harra that Axelby and gang were in the saloon just 250 yards away. Instead of trying to storm the saloon, Willard and his men waited inside the house for
the outlaws to make a move.

Shortly after 3 p.m. George Axelby and his men exited the saloon, drunk and boisterously firing their pistols. The Willard posse poured out of Stone’s house and took up positions as the gang climbed onto their horses. Deputy Fred Willard and outlaw Jack Campbell opened fire at almost the same instant. McCarthy, the last one out of the saloon, had not yet mounted. He grabbed his Winchester rifle from his saddle, took cover behind a fence, and fired back at the lawmen. Some of the other outlaws also began shooting as they attempted to ride away.

Deputy O’Harra got off eight or nine rounds before a bullet from McCarthy’s Winchester struck him in the left side and passed clean through his body. Another bullet struck Fred Willard between the shoulders, while two more pierced his clothing without so much as creasing him. One shot also passed harmlessly through A.M. Willard’s coat, while another creased his left ear. The seriously wounded O’Harra said, “Fred, I came out with you to stand by you, and I have staid [sic] as long as I could; give them the best you have.” Two men dragged the wounded O’Harra to Stone’s house, but within 10 minutes he was dead.

Meanwhile, the outlaws took a beating. Fred Willard’s opening shot grazed Jack Campbell’s head, knocking him from his horse, which Willard also shot. When Campbell regained his senses, he crawled into some nearby brush and hid while the gunfight raged around him. Eventually, he made it to the river and worked his way downstream away from danger. Axelby had his horse shot from under him and took a rifle slug in the thigh, but he limped off into the bushes and escaped on foot as bullets whizzed about him.

Harry Tuttle was riding a mule instead of a horse. When the shooting started, he lost control of his frightened mount, which twirled around in tight circles. During this impromptu rodeo, one of the posse members shot Tuttle in the left elbow, knocking him from the bucking mule. Holding his wounded elbow, he, too, headed for the safety of the bushes.

As Fred Willard had the foresight to shoot the outlaws’ mounts, Axelby and his men, wounded or not, were forced to flee on foot. Axelby fired several parting shots, one of which instantly killed William Cunningham, a cook from the Driscoll ranch, who had stepped from the saloon to witness the gunplay. Another cowboy, Jack Harris, also caught a bullet, later dying of his wounds.

When the gunfire stopped, the lawmen tended to Fred Willard’s shoulder, mourned O’Harra’s death and assessed the situation. Axelby and the other outlaws had gotten away, and it was getting dark. Snow was falling, so the posse members hoped that would make tracking easier the next morning. The shooting of the two cowboys, both innocent bystanders, infuriated other local cowboys, some of whom asked to join the posse in search of justice—or vengeance.

On Saturday the 16th, Deputy Marshal A.M.Willard and his posse of officers and cowboys rode out to meet Deputy Ryan and his prisoner at Box Elder Creek, some 20 miles north of Stoneville. Willard left an extra man with Ryan, who delivered Pruden to Spearfish without incident—not that the outlaws, horseless and in some cases wounded, were in any condition to snatch the prisoner. Meanwhile, more reinforcements arrived in Stoneville from Spearfish, and the posse continued after Axelby and the other fugitives.

The wounded Harry Tuttle didn’t get far. He stopped at the nearby Shuster ranch and had a cowboy tourniquet his bleeding arm. The man tied the deerskin thong so tight it cut off Tuttle’s circulation, causing him more pain than had the initial wound. The posse soon caught up to Tuttle, and Willard had him transported to the hospital in Spearfish.

Jack Campbell followed the Little Missouri some five miles downstream to the James Walker place, then sent a note to a ranch foreman named Hood at the Stoneville Saloon:

Dear Hood: I was badly wounded in the head during the fight yesterday, and my horse was killed. The boys were all shot to pieces and scattered. For God’s sake, send me a horse by bearer as soon as it is dark enough to get away from the officers.

Billie Chase, the local mail carrier, carried the note from the ranch to Hood at the saloon. But Willard’s men were watching everyone closely and intercepted the message. They then gave Chase specific instructions: He was to take the horse to the Walker place and tie it to the corral, then go inside and tell Campbell he’d better leave at once.

What happened next remains in contention. Years later eyewitness Henry Walker, perhaps a son of the ranch owner, gave one side of the story. Walker said the posse arrived at the ranch in the middle of the night, and when Campbell showed himself, they began shooting without any demand to surrender. As he lay dying, Campbell asked to write a note to his mother, but the posse denied his request. Then, said Walker, each posse member emptied his gun into Campbell. According to this account, the body lay in the yard for two days, as the Walkers were afraid to move him. Eventually a lumber wagon arrived from Stoneville to retrieve Campbell’s body, by now frozen stiff. According to Walker, two men used the body as if it were a seat for the
trip to town.

That version differed sharply from the one released by the sheriff’s office. The February 19 Daily Yellowstone Journal reported from Miles City that when Campbell emerged from the ranch house to retrieve the horse, one of the lawmen did call out, “Throw up your hands!” Hearing this, Campbell whirled around and fired in the direction of the voice. He managed to squeeze off just one shot before the posse “perforated with bullets” the dangerous gang member. The February 20 Black Hills Times stated that Campbell, after crawling away downriver from Stoneville, “was seen the next day by the officers, lying on the prairie…with 15 bullet holes in his body, dead.” That report made no mention of the posse, but the same edition said tongue in cheek with regard to the outlaw’s demise, “When Campbell went for the horse, he found one that was loaded, and it went off and riddled him with bullets.”

Sarah Ann Motz, a young girl from Stoneville, claimed having seen Campbell’s body “thrown into a hole…and partly covered with dirt.” She then persuaded the men to give him a Christian burial. According to the Fallon County Times, Campbell was buried in the Stoneville Cemetery. Others claimed the men had ignored Sarah’s pleas and buried the outlaw in the hardpan on the sagebrush flat east of Stoneville. Sixty-four years later the Ekalaka Eagle reported in its June 25, 1948, edition that someone in the area had unearthed a skeleton, about Campbell’s size and still wearing boots, along with several .40-70 shell casings.

George Axelby, Billy McCarthy and the other two gang members made it to the Sheldon ranch, about five miles from Stoneville. Axelby had his leg wound dressed and took $40 before leaving. The Willard posse tracked the four outlaws to the ranch, but from there the trail went cold. Willard suspected Axelby would make for his hideout near Devils Tower and spent several weeks dogging him, with no luck. The gang leader vanished from all records. Two rumors persist about his fate—either that he died along the trail from his infected wound or that he slipped quietly across the border to hole up with some friends in Mexico. Considering Campbell’s fate, Axelby, McCarthy and the others were probably fortunate the law didn’t catch up to them. The February 20, 1884, Deadwood Daily Times carried the following ominous bit of sarcasm: “We are also assured that no prisoners will be taken by the pursuing party, they will simply arrest them, give them a good talking to and send them on across the river Styx.”

A “good talking to” was not to be the fate of Harry Tuttle. Given the severe infection of Tuttle’s elbow wound, his attending doctor expected the outlaw to die. And since Tuttle clearly wasn’t going anywhere, the sheriff’s office didn’t bother to post a guard.

Hospital conditions being what they were, fellow patients dressed Tuttle’s wounds. Charley Head performed that task for the last time early Wednesday morning, February 27. Afterward, he and Tuttle sat by the stove and enjoyed a smoke before retiring for the night. Between 3 and 4 o’clock the following morning, seven or eight masked men wearing buffalo coats burst into the hospital ward.

Four of the vigilantes lifted Tuttle from his bed by his arms and legs and carried him out of the room. Though gagged, Tuttle managed to cry out, waking other patients; the men warned them to keep quiet and remain in their rooms until daylight. Amos Benson recalled being told, “Old man…keep quiet, and they will not hurt you.” Another patient, Lemuel Hudson, testified at the coroner’s inquest he first thought the men had killed Tuttle in bed, but then heard the outlaw breathing as the men filed past.

One vigilante remained at the hospital to ensure none of the patients followed while the rest of the men carted off the alleged Axelby associate who had ridden a mule to Stoneville. Wearing nothing but his hospital nightshirt, Tuttle was dragged through the cold night to a cliff above Spearfish Academy. One man threw a rope over a branch overhanging the cliff, another tied one end to the trunk. Still others wrapped a noose around Tuttle’s neck. One of the vigilantes gave him a shove over the embankment, which broke his leg but not his neck. The coroner later determined Tuttle died slowly of strangulation. “Under his chin and on the back of his head, marks of the rope were apparent, deep impressions being made, and the dents showing discoloration,” reported the Deadwood Daily Pioneer. Above each knee were bruises and lacerations from his fall against the embankment. The Black Hills Times said the handkerchief used to gag him left marks on his mouth. His condition didn’t deter the morbidly curious. At Smith’s funeral parlor, many viewed his body, whose features, the Times reported, were “scarce recognizable as being those of Harry Tuttle, so roughly had he been used.”

In the wake of Tuttle’s brutal lynching, the newspapers took a high moral tone. The Daily Yellowstone Journal called the hanging “scarcely necessary, as he was nearly dead of his wounds, but the people of the neighborhood have a very bitter feeling towards the outlaws.” The Black Hills Times labeled the incident an “outrage.” The editor of the Deadwood Daily Times wrote, “We denounce it as an inhuman, cold-blooded, COWARDLY murder” and went on to demand that Spearfish “bring to justice the eight (more or less) cowards.” That task might have proved difficult, as the coroner’s jury concluded, “Tuttle came to his death by strangulation done by the hands of six or eight men unknown.”

Jesse Pruden, catalyst of the Stoneville gunfight, languished in jail a while and then faded from history. The fight had rid Dakota and Montana territories of the George Axelby Gang, but what happened in Stoneville and the surrounding area afterward was frontier justice at its swiftest and most severe. Jack Campbell and Harry Tuttle had learned the hard way that standing trial was often a luxury in the territories. As for the Stoneville Saloon, it still serves patrons today in Alzada, Mont.—as its motto proudly states, “Conveniently Located in the Middle of Nowhere.”

Canadian author Les Kruger, who makes many long research trips to the American West, thanks Nora Gould for her help with this article. Information came from several contemporary newspapers and The Black Hills Trails, by A.M. Willard and Jesse Brown. An account of the gunfight also appears in the book Empty Saddles, Forgotten Names, by Doug Engebretson.