When S.W. Westfall was elected to the job of sheriff, he knew that the task would not be easy. Madera County had its share of troublemakers, and it took a great deal of patience to ensure domestic tranquility in the face of the criminal element that roamed the countryside.
Occasionally, however, it wasn’t the robbers, drunks, or burglars who disturbed the peace. Sometimes it was the law-abiding and highly respected citizens that gave the sheriff fits. Take, for instance, that time when two of Fresno Flats’ (Oakhurst) most highly thought of families almost brought tragedy to the town in what began as a simple dogfight.
We are not going to give the family names, for their descendants still reside in Madera County. We will simply refer to them by the initials of the husbands, R.W. and E.O. Now to the story.
It should have been a pleasant evening visit. The two Oakhurst families had been friends for quite a while; there was lots of daylight after work during the month of August 1914, and they enjoyed each other’s company. Just after supper one evening, R.W. took his family and their Collie dog and strolled over to E.O.’s place.
The women folk, including R.W.’s daughter, went inside the house to visit while the men swapped yarns out in the barn. It just so happened that E.O. had a dog of his own, a Bulldog with an uneven disposition. While the men were engaged in conversation in the barn, the dogs were getting acquainted in the barnyard.
No one knows what started it, but suddenly the Collie and the Bulldog began a quarrel that became a fight to the death. The sound of the combat brought R.W. and E.O. running out of the barn and the women out of the house. Everyone watched in horror as the two animals tried to kill each other.
It was R.W. who reached them first and attempted to separate them, all to no avail. Before he knew it, E.O.’s Bulldog had a death grip on the throat of R.W.’s Collie. It would have been the end of the dog had someone not taken action. R.W. did just that.
He pulled out a huge hunting knife and stabbed E.O.’s dog to death right before his neighbor’s eyes. When the Collie limped away to lick his wounds, L.W. thought the worst was over. He was sadly mistaken.
When E.O saw the killing of his dog, he lost his head and ran into his house. Within seconds, he emerged carrying a loaded rifle, apparently intent on extracting retribution. Fortunately, E.O.’s wife intervened and took the gun, but that didn’t stop her husband.
While R.W. was tending to his Collie, E.O. hit him with a haymaker that sent him reeling. R.W. got to his feet, and within moments the two men took up where the dogs left off. Now it was the women’s turn to step in.
Each wife grabbed her husband and somehow managed to put an end to the fisticuffs, but the burning anger lingered. E.O. ordered R.W. and his family off his place with a nasty threat. He warned R.W. to be on the lookout because he intended to kill not only his Collie but his daughter as well. R.W. returned home stunned at the turn of events.
After a sleepless night, during which he kept watch for E.O., R.W. saddled up his horse and rode to Madera to see Sheriff Westfall. He explained the source of his concern, and within an hour or two, a warrant was issued for E.O.’s arrest.
Now it was Westfall’s turn to be apprehensive. What would he find when he went up to Fresno Flats to arrest E.O.? Had the man’s anger melted, or did he still have murder in his eyes? Fortunately, E.O. had had time to cool off, and the sheriff had no trouble bringing him to Madera.
On Aug. 22, 1914, E.O. appeared before Judge J.W. Montague, “looking to be anything but a bad or dangerous man.” He denied making any threats toward R.W. or his family, but he did admit to expressing the desire to kill his dog.
Judge Montague put E.O.’s bail at $100 and admonished him to attempt to patch things up with R.W. Westfall kept his fingers crossed.
Perhaps it was the night in jail. Maybe it was the passing of a little time. It could have been that down deep inside, E.O. was really a reasonable man. No doubt the presence of Sheriff Westfall had something to do with it, but as he escorted E.O. back to Fresno Flats, he was ready for reconciliation.
The record does not say who made the first move. It was nevertheless initiated, and the two antagonists became friends once more. The charges were dropped, and life returned to normal for everyone except the Bulldog.
Not every foothill feud had such an ending. In an era when principles ran deep and honor was held high, the odds against E.O. and R.W. ever speaking to each other again was fairly high, which says quite a bit about the arbitrating powers of Sheriff Westfall.
When he returned to Madera from Fresno Flats, he once again focused his attention on the nere-do-wells who normally kept him busy. He had defused a potential disaster and kept the peace. Two of Madera County’s respected farmers had kept their dignity and their lives. It was all in a day’s work.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune