Four men rode into the woods east of Mendocino. They unsaddled their horses then set up camp in an old hay shed. There they waited for their leader to bring supplies and to tell them when all was ready. The task he had set for them: to rob the county sheriff as the lawman toured the coastal region collecting taxes.
That ringleader was a well-regarded professional, yet no stranger to the extraction of funds from the citizenry. He sent one-eyed A.B. Courtwright to them, carrying tobacco, cartridges, and copies of the San Francisco Chronicle. The same four had spent much of September at Courtwright's cabin, fourteen miles southeast of Westport, near Ten Mile River. The ringleader from Mendocino had mailed Courtwright twenty dollars to provision the four conspirators with bacon, sugar, tea, and other simple necessities.
Courtwright knew three of these men, Harrison Brown, John Billings, and Samuel Carr. All served time together with him at San Quentin Prison. Billings and Carr had both killed men in their past. The former had several scars under his shirttail, testament to a number of gun battles he'd engaged in throughout the West. All three were in their late thirties or early forties, though Carr, with sunken cheeks and a graying goatee appeared significantly older.
The fourth man, George Gaunce, was a comparative youth in his mid-twenties. By the time the four horsemen camped in the woods several miles east of Mendocino and less than a mile north of Big River, Gaunce sported two to three weeks worth of beard.
On Monday, October 13th, Mendocino town constable Bill Host started his day at the home he shared with his invalid wife. They called their spread Ash Grove. Though he still owned property in town, Host now preferred their Ash Grove farm about seven miles along the road toward the hamlet of Comptche; the same road wended farther east past Orr's Hot Springs and over the coast range to the county seat in Ukiah. Host rode north that morning of the 13th, crossed Big River while the autumn air still held a chill, then turned west. Near the north fork of Big River, the sight of recently turned earth the size of a grave caught Constable Host's eye. Stopping to inspect, he kicked away enough dirt to discover the hide, bones, and other remains of a freshly buried heifer.
He followed the tracks of horses to a location where the redwood forest petered out into prairie land dominated by huckleberry brush. There, the constable spotted four strangers camped beside a trickling brook. Host did not stop, though he noted a makeshift rack where strips of meat hung drying over an open fire.
Instead, he continued into town to report the incident to Chester Ford, superintendent at the Mendocino Lumber Company office. Twenty-three-year-old Jerome Chester Ford shared the same first name with his father, Jerome Bursley Ford, one of the founders of the lumber company. Bill Host expressed his suspicion that the heifer being jerked might belong to the company's herd. Chester Ford agreed that it proved a matter worthy of further investigation.
Host asked for and received a warrant from the local justice of the peace, then he and seven other Mendocino men rode back to the camp. They found it abandoned and no sign of the beef either. Host located stray items such as a label from iron ware, a pair of rubber slippers next to a log, as well as pieces of drawers and a rag. One of the men brought his dog who led them back to the buried heifer remains. On closer inspection, Host could not find a brand, but he discovered the ears had been cut off and were nowhere to be found, proving to him that the lumber company had tagged the bovine's ears. Eventually, the constable and his men found hoof prints leading away from the jerking camp, but dusk soon prevented pursuit.
Back in town, the constable procured promises from Tom Dollard and William Wright to ride along with him the next day. Dollard worked occasionally for the lumber company, but his main source of income derived from his co-ownership of the mercantile store known as “Jarvis and Dollard” at the northeast corner of Main and Kasten Streets. He was a divorced man, apparently much sought after as a partner at local Saturday night dance parties. Forty-year-old William Wright's employment stemmed more directly from the Mendocino Lumber Company as a wagoneer.
On the 14th, Host, Dollard, and Wright rode about four miles out the Little Lake Road then turned into the woods when they spied smoke rising. They soon found the four men encamped, with their beef hanging and ready to be cured or jerked. A couple of them wore holsters with revolvers while four rifles stood stacked against a tree within easy reach. Constable Host noticed the lack of sun on the strangers' hands and forearms and the high heels of their boots. No cowboys, he concluded before greeting the men.
William Wright said, “That is pretty good venison.”
Harrison Brown, a slim fellow with heavy eyebrows, and a scar at the center of his forehead, replied from the campfire, “Yes, pretty good for the woods.” Then he asked Host what he was looking for.
The constable said, “A tie claim. My old claim's about worked out.”
“What else do you make,” Brown asked.
“Posts, shakes, and shingles.” With only two men to back him, Host reckoned it poor odds to tangle with four well-armed outsiders. He, Dollard, and Wright made their excuses and headed back to Mendocino.
That evening eight men were sworn in to accompany Host the following day. The posse dwindled to seven when Chester Ford's father, who happened to be in town visiting from Oakland, objected in the strongest terms. Hardware store owner Eber W. Potter volunteered for Host's posse. On the street that night he encountered John F. Wheeler, the town dentist, known to townspeople as “Doc.” Wheeler's prowess with both rifle and revolver was a given in Mendocino. He had killed many a buck and rumor had it he'd scouted with Buffalo Bill and Custer after having spent three years as a captive of the Sioux in his boyhood. Potter liked him because Doc had purchased several boxes of cartridges and a butcher knife at the hardware store.
Potter asked if the dentist would join the posse. Wheeler responded that if the men who owned the butchered heifer put up $500 or $600 reward he would. He also cautioned Potter about the possibility of gunplay, saying, “Someone might get shot.... Who would care for mother now.”
The next morning at 7 a.m., with an autumn cold snap in the air, Potter sat the saddle alongside Constable Host. Dr. Wheeler was nowhere to be found. Acceding to his father's wishes, Chester Ford sheepishly bowed out and watched his townsmen, armed with rifles and revolvers, head out on horseback. Laughter and nervous joviality marked the ride into the woods as if a lark of some kind, if not adventure, awaited. Dollard and Wright accompanied Constable Host again. Along with them rode attorneys Archibald Yell and J.J. Morrow as well as former mill hand turned saloon keeper Cy Galbraith. The one among them most familiar with the outdoors and hunting rifles was thirty-one-year-old woods superintendent James Nichols. Though both were more than a decade older, Dollard and Nichols were rumored to be suitors of Kate Carlson. She was one of nineteen-year-old twin daughters of a Main Street hotelier.