There we were in Valentine, Nebraska, killing time in the Cherry County Museum, wishing the rain would stop. Two unlaunched rental canoes lying up on the soggy banks of the Niobrara drawing hourly charges. Two kids bounce from display to display, hoping to find something mildly interesting. The lack of cell phone service has rendered their electronic companions inoperable and is straining short attention spans.
A picture of Sioux Chief Big Foot on the back wall, the famous one taken when they were cleaning up the Sioux dead after Wounded Knee. He’s leaning back on his elbows looking sleepy and confused, lifelike for a guy dead and frozen for at least 12 hours. Did the fellow taking pictures have any notion when he snapped that one? Did he say to himself, “Wow! That really summarized the whole deal?” Or did he slog along taking pictures of stiff, dead Sioux, hoping he’d finish before his feet froze completely?
Plenty of Cherry County folks went over to help with the burial. At least that’s what the exhibit write-up says. Could have been a train wreck or a plane crash or any other big deal disaster which draws looky loos. Just happened to be a massacre. Don’t look for any apologies on that back wall either. It says plain as day the troops were worried Big Foot’s people, stoked up on the Ghost Dance craze, were going to cause trouble. That’s why the troops dragged along all that heavy artillery and wiped them out. Sioux raise hell, Sioux get blown away. Perfectly logical. Right alongside Big Foot’s picture, we study an elaborate arrowhead collection. Well, some of us do. The two youngsters opt for staring at the rain from inside the automobile parked outside, all the while checking their phones hoping service will magically be restored.
On Big Foot’s left, a photograph of a 19th century Cherry County cattle drive. Something over 2500 head of yearling steers crossing the Niobrara below Valentine. The drovers wear Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, clean wooly chaps and high round-crowned white hats, like maybe they’d been forewarned somebody was going to take their picture. In the foreground, two ranchers dressed like bankers watch the drive. Could be Henry Ford watching Model Ts roll off the assembly line. Suits, ties, black lace up shoes. Could be insurance salesmen, Baptist preachers, lawyers or any other generic shopkeep occupation. Where in blazes are their boots? What kind of self-respecting rancher would wear shoes to a photo opportunity? Shoes. Has to be Eastern money.
Up on the museum’s front counter stacks of photo albums. An album with a yellow cover is filled with Valentine street scenes. One picture of a tree has a neatly typed label underneath. It says “Tree.” On the next page is an off-center shot of someone’s zinnia bed. Underneath it says, “Flowers.” Next to the yellow album is a thin red scrapbook. Scratched on the front in child’s printing is the word “Grandsinger.” I vaguely remember Lloyd Grandsinger from a murder case here in Cherry County about 65 years ago. Sioux kid. Shot a Nebraska state patrolman. Some bleeding hearts got him a second trial. Acquitted. And he stayed out of trouble maybe 15 minutes. Stole cars, pilfered gas stations at night, bootlegged whiskey up on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. Spent the majority of the next 50 years behind bars. What makes a Sioux kid like jail so much he spends his whole life there? What about the wandering spirit? All that genetic monogramming gone to waste.
Except this scrapbook doesn’t tell about Lloyd Grandsinger’s life since 1954. It just tells about the murder. About two Sioux youngsters tooling through Nebraska towing an ancient Ford with a hot car stolen in Wyoming, a car so hot the yellowed newspaper article doesn’t even know who really owned it, so hot maybe nobody had gotten around to report it stolen. It didn’t matter because the cops wanted Lloyd and his brother for a South Dakota store and post office burglary yielding some cash and a .22 pistol. Lloyd was such a notorious habitual criminal by then nobody doubted he’d done the deeds. All-points bulletin. Law enforcement knew about the gun. They knew Lloyd was a two-bit, non-violent kind of punk. But they knew about the stolen gun.
Maybe it was the gun which had Cherry County Sheriff “Wild Bill” Freeman and Nebraska State Trooper Marvin Hansen riding in the same patrol car north of the Niobrara. Maybe they were being extra vigilant, extra careful. But that doesn’t explain why, when the two cops stopped the Grandsingers, neither had his gun drawn. Leon, the older brother, gave up right away. He was used to the drill, been arrested plenty of times himself. The sheriff took charge of the prisoner, while Trooper Hansen ran after Lloyd, who had bailed from the passenger side of the towed Ford and vamoosed down the road on foot. The newspaper doesn’t explain why the sheriff didn’t hear shots, but when he moseyed up the road, he found a dying trooper, bullet hole smack dab through both the Sam Brown belt and his pants belt and called for help.
All we know for sure is that Lloyd could flat run that river. Planes and dogs and an assortment of 400 Cherry County ranchers, sheriff’s deputies, newspaper reporters, state troopers, many with high-powered rifles. A few posse members boarded canoes and floated downriver. And Lloyd ran. Sixteen hours he fled through the oak and ash river bottom with the whole country looking hard. They caught him crossing the river to the north side, due south of the southeast corner of the Rosebud Reservation. A newspaper photo shows the driftwood stump where someone spotted him throwing an object. The entire universe thinks it was the stolen .22 pistol, but the paper sticks to the facts. Someone saw Lloyd throw an object. Never recovered. The river there runs from 18 to 36 inches deep. Four hundred posse members with their 25 posse dogs couldn’t find it. Wasn’t because they didn’t look. They looked plenty. Went back and looked after they hauled Lloyd into Valentine to the county jail.
Multiple photos of Lloyd in jail. He looks scared, and young, and nearly naked. One pant leg torn clear off, the other just rags. Photographers could take all the pictures they wanted. The authorities sat Lloyd at a table and said, “Have at him.” Officials did that sort of thing back then. There’s one close-up shot of Lloyd slumped over with his eyes straight on the cameraman. He looks full of give-up. How was he to know four years down the road some bleeding hearts were going to spring him?
Another scrapbook, a blue one with child-like printing of the words “Grandsinger Trials.”
The first trial was a cartoon, the defense attorney caught red-handed enlarging the bullet hole in Hansen’s pants belt with a wooden dowel after an expert witness testified the hole matched what a .22 bullet would do in that situation. The jury wasted no time convicting Grandsinger, not caring what size of bullet hole or how it got that way. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair. However, Lloyd’s defense counsel, through pure nitwitted incompetence, provided more than sufficient grounds for a new trial.
According to the smudged newspaper clippings, Grandsinger’s second trial four years later, ended in acquittal. Now discounted rumors of an inappropriate relationship between Wild Bill’s wife and Trooper Hansen were in rabid circulation, rumors including the vengeful shooting of the trooper by the sheriff. An approaching blizzard had the jury, mostly made up of ranchers, anxious to get home to their livestock. When a lone juror, who’d recently played the lead in a local production of the play, Twelfth Man Out, argued for acquittal, the ranchers, nervous to get home before the snow hit, caved.
The white-haired museum curator strolls over. She has that mind-reader’s twinkle in her eye. “Wild Bill’s still alive, you know. He’s in his own home out west of the motel. His wife died a long time ago. Did you know that? No? Why don’t you go talk to him. He still remembers that Grandsinger case. Made him famous.”
Great idea. Except, do you go and not ask about those long discounted rumors? Awkward. And what’s the point of stirring 60 year old old muck? On the other hand, how can you not go and talk to an eyewitness? You don’t go because the sun is out. The river beckons. Maybe you’ll talk to the sheriff next trip. Maybe you’ll think of a super clever way of asking questions. Fool the britches off him.
All the way down the sunny Niobrara we look for large driftwood stumps. White sandstone canyon walls rise two hundred feet on the north side of the river. Quite a chore just to climb one, let alone dodge a posse to get cross country clear to the Rosebud.