'Deadline' explored


Mysteries entertain me, specifically since fifth grade when I ordered a couple Agatha Christie paperbacks at the school’s book fair, which wasn’t actually a “fair” but an order sheet of many different titles.

The teacher asked, “Are you sure...” and I nodded that I was. One was The ABC Murders – I was thrilled by the devious thought that a person could plan and execute (so to speak) another person’s disappearance. Although fictional victims would never stand up again, my experiences with untimely death were limited to road-killed rabbits and unfortunate farm cats.

I knew nothing of actual gushing blood or what pain a person might feel if killed, because nothing yet had taught me about the gory details.

Still not thrilled with gory details – but fascinated with details and mysteries - the actual investigation and deduction of finding a perpetrator, new settings and characters captivate me.

True crime can fall into that category. As I graduated to Ann Rule, I thought, this could be anybody. Her most memorable book is The Stranger Beside Me because it was clear and uniquely from a perspective that only one person – Ann Rule herself – could claim.

Some true crime readers don’t like to be burdened with details; I savor them. The other day I happily picked up The Sandy Knoll Murders, Legacy of the Sheepshooters, for a quarter. I am pleased to see that writing about 1903-1904, an author can rely on historic newspapers in a way now not considered balanced.

Free to hazard theories and personal beliefs, those lofty editors and indignant letter writers chronicled the pervasive feelings and conflicts of another era.

The very local story is about the mysterious shooting death of an eastern Oregon man during the tumultuous range wars of sheepmen versus cattlemen. Some might consider historic sources a burden that can be skimmed or parsed but for me they add depth and substance.

This morning on the porch with my cup of coffee, I read about rangeland “dead lines” – “Don’t cross this road with your sheep or we’ll kill them.”

In eastern Oregon, this was meant as a serious warning, as I expect it was across the west. Aware of some range wars in Wyoming, soon I began speculating. Did this part of western Wyoming witness these before Sublette County was drawn on the map? Is that how Deadline Ridge gots its name?

My uneducated guess (although I’ve watched the movie Shane) is that there indeed were battles over lands not privately owned. Maybe this was “shoot, shovel and shut up” territory long before wolves were reintroduced?

As it happens, Friday was my personal “deadline” for this column, a little different than the “dead line” blazed for sheepherders in eastern Oregon. In this case, a deadline is a matter of timing. Back then, it was a physical “do not cross or else” line. A red cloth painted with a skull and crossbones tacked to a tree.

Rain on the roof, another cup of coffee and a quick look for clues to “deadline origin.”

Relating it to the 19th-century printing world, a “deadline” was a guideline marked on the bed of a printing press outside of which text could be illegible. Makes sense.

“The Morbid Origin of the Word ‘Deadline’” also popped up. In 1864 during the Civil War, the man put in charge of Fort Sumter, an inhumane POW camp in Georgia that grew to hold 30,000 Union prisoners, made grim use of the concept.

To keep order, the warden set up a “dead line,” a short fence about 20 feet inside the stockade walls and ordered guards to shoot and kill anyone who might touch, fall over or cross it. He was arrested and executed after the war, the site noted.

Terrifying – exactly what it was meant to convey.

The use of “dead lines” in western sheep and cattle wars over grazing rangelands carried the same connotation. If someone knows how Deadline Ridge got its name – or if what’s now Sublette County had similar rangeland battles – I’m interested to hear more.

Fortunately for me, this word has evolved to mean a time limit – and the consequence of missing a “deadline” is rarely fatal.

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