The Killing of the Warden

In 1902 Guy Bradley was hired to protect the last great breeding ground of plume birds.

The following story is a fictional account of Guy Bradley’s murder written in the language of the time. It is told by Gene Roberts, who discovered the body, to Lucius Watson, whose father, Ed, was blamed for this and other murders in south Florida. “The Killing” is excerpted from the novel Bone by Bone, the third novel in Peter Matthiessen’s Watson Trilogy, which began with Killing Mr. Watson (1993) and Lost Man’s River (1997). Bone by Bone was published by Random House in April 1999. This excerpt originally appeared in the November-December 1998 issue.

Guy Bradley had a quarter-mile of shore west of Flamingo, and us Robertses was the next section west, toward Sawfish Hole, and we was huntin partners. Still had fair numbers of plume birds around Cape Sable, but ever’ place else, them birds was already slaughtered out; they was almost gone. Guy weren’t but a young feller back in the ’80s when he was shootin birds with Old Chevelier on the Bonton, but now he had him a new family to feed. Before the rest of us, he seen that there was no future for the plume birds, nor plume bird hunters, neither. Used to tell my dad how them aigrets was bound to disappear, same way as the native flamingos that give our good ol’ Fillymingo settlement that name. Used to see them beautiful birds back there in the savanna, quite a few around the headwaters of the Glades rivers, and as late as 1902, there was still close to a hundred on the cape flats. Bur flamingos never stood no chance against the plumers.

 Guy and his brother Lou was the first plume hunters to shoot aigrets out of Cuthbert Lake. The reddish and the blues and the blue-and-white Louisianas—“Loosies”—wasn’t worth much, but the white aigret plumes brought $28 an ounce, more than pure gold, and the pink spoonbills brought pretty good money, too, and the flamingos, while we had some.

 In 1903 guy guided some of them Audubon officials form New York to see all the shot-up rookeries. Mr. Job and Mr. Bent and Mr. Chapman—Mr. Frank Chapman—it was these three men who gibe Guy the idea to be the warden. They got him hired for the job by Monroe County, said Guy was just the man to protect them birds. Course the county never aimed to pay no goddamned warden; it was Audubons up in New York that paid his salary. Guy took the job kind of reluctant, cause he told us more’n once, “Sooner of later, some riled-up son of a bitch will take and shoot me.” He told that to Mr. Chapman, too, but he wanted the job anyway, he was that kind.

 Ol’ Guy was about 32, I reckon, hardenin into a stubborn streak, which come down from his daddy. Edwin Bradley in his younger days had walked the U.S. mail down the East Coast all the way from Palm Beach to Miami. Later he worked for the Model Land Company, owned by Henry M. Flagler, the King of Palm Beach, who was given most of the southeast Florida by the U.S. government as a payoff for the building that new East Coast railroad.

 Guy figured if he was goin to warden, he would give it hell, same as he done when he shot the shit out of the birds. Never had no uniform or nothing, just stuck a badge on his ol’ mattress-tickin shirt and hitched his galluses and went right to it, makin life miserable for all his neighbors. I don’t hold with what was done to Guy, but I weren’t surprised when some of his old partners turned against him, took a wingin bullets past his ear to warn him off. Bein’ Guy, he kept right on with it, never cared if you was a friend or stranger; if he’d of caught his brother, he’d of run him in.

 Course, these arrests never come to nothing, cause he couldn’t prove nothing, not in Monroe County. Judge at Key West would be plain crazy to jail a man for doin what our people always done—what it was our God-given damn right to do, ain’t that a fact? Who was here first, our local hunters of them Audibones from New York City? Judge figured the plumers had punishment enough with all the time lost sailin 70 miles down to Key West and back for nothing, missin day after day in the best part of the season knowin their neighbors had went right back into the rookeries while the warden was done, likely finished what few birds was left. 

Spring of 19 and 04, them birds was farther in between than ever, and prospects was lookin very, very poor. Before the next breedin season came around, Cap’n Walt Smith a sponge fisherman and wreck salvager out of Key West who kept a plume-bird-huntin camp at Flamingo—this Walt Smith applied to take Guy Bradley’s warden job away from him. Smith spread the word that if his fellow citizens would just vote him in as warden, persecution would stop and honest men could go out and shoot, break the law to their heart’s content.

You couldn’t blame Walt in a way, because before Guy got to be the warden, them two men was partners at Bird Key when the cormorants—that is Audubon lingo for plain ol’ nigger geese—was nestin. They’d salt down the young’uns, sell ’em in Key West for a few dollars. But a dollar was a dollar then; a man could get by on 100 a year for them few needs he couldn’t take care of by himself, so Smith was countin on it. Anyways them two fellers was in the same line of work, and not only that but Guy’s mother and Walt Smith’s wife was best of friends from way back in their early years, up the east coast. Yep, Guy had known Smith most all of his life; they had shot birds side by side. And when the warden knows all the plumer’s ways and what he’s most likely to do in ever’ weather, well, that makes it hard. Because by 1905, what we called “white birds” as so scairdy that a shot a mile away would rise ’em up out of their rookery, and it was hard enough to get in close without havin to keep an eye over your shoulder for some damn warden lookin to arrest you.

All the same, after Guy got to be warden, he told the Smiths to stay out of them rookeries or he’d take ’em to court and do his best to get ’em jailed. And Old Man Smith said, Lookit here, goddamnit, Guy, I been shootin out here for many a year and you right next to me, so don’t you go messin with me when I come in there, cause them birds is my livin and I aim to keep it that way.” Well, Guy just went ahead the same as always, and before the year was out, he arrested Tom Smith twice for plume-bird violations. Tom was 16. And Walt Smith had a fit and said, “You pester my boy again, I aim to kill you.”

Thing as, our Fillymingo folks always liked Guy Bradley, leastaways before he went to wardenin, and even them few that didn’t care for him too much and called him too uprighteous, the liked him a lot better than they liked Walt Smith. At least they had respect for Guy, and nobody respected Smith at all. Loaded his sponges up with sand to cheat a few extra pennies in the market; claimed he had fought for the Confederacy as a damn sharpshooter—that’s where that “captain” come from. Captain Sniper! He could shoot, I won’t deny that, but he was a mean skunk, and his sons took after him. His boys and crew as about the only ones as voted for him.

When he lost out on takin Guy’s job, Smith come to see this as a feud—insult to injury. To his crooked way of thinkin, Guy had robbed him of what was rightfully his, and he hollered to anybody who would listen that he had swallered all he meant to take. Said no man could shit upon Smith family honor and get away with it. That was the first us Fillymingo folks had ever heard about Smith family honor. As my dad said, a feller’s have to hint long and hard to come up with enough of that to shit upon! No, the Smiths were not so famous for their honor, but they were pretty well-knowed for revenge. They wasn’t boys you would want to turn your back on. 

One daybreak not long after that election, eighth day of July, 19 and 05, the Smith bunch come in and shot up Bird Key just like they promised, no two miles out in Florida Bay from the Bradley’s house. Guy was woke up all by the shootin, and when he looked out and seen the old blue Cleveland over there, he sighed and told his young wife, Fronie, “Them Smiths is out there killin cormorants, and I’m goin over there and put a stop to it.” But Guy must of knowed that nobody would shot so close in to Flamingo that wasn’t lookin to bring the warden runnin. Like Fronie told us the next day, it was kind of funny how much pains he took to say goodbye. Picked up his two little fellers and hugged ’em hard, although he weren’t goin but only that short distance and be back for supper. Later she figured her already had an instinct what was comin down on him but was just too stubborn to mention it or head the other way.

Always puzzled us when Fronie Bradley said she knew better than to try and stop him, cause she was a woman could back up her opinions with her fists. Guy’s wife is a boxinest damned thing I ever seen, she’d put the gloves on with anybody, man or woman. Yessir, that young woman loved to box! Me, I could never hit a woman, ’fraid I’d hurt her, but one feller held the opinion that this darn female should be taken down a peg before they all got that habit, so he took her on. Hell, I was there, I seen it! She knocked him down as fast as he got up. Finally he dusted himself off, said thanks for the boxin lesson, ma’am, but he reckoned he’d had about enough. So Fronie said, “Hold on, mister, I ain’t done boxin.” Darned if she didn’t knock him flat again!

“You aim to finish up about Guy Bradley, Gene?”

 Like I was sayin, Lou Bradley was around there some place, but Guy never asked his brother to go with him. Just set sail in his little sloop, out across the bay. No question he knowed who that blue schooner belonged to. If he’d had sense, he’d of come about, went back for help. Buy Guy never did like askin nobody for help—sin of pride, I reckon.

That morning of July 8, it was a norther, wind backin around from southeast to northwest, and a heavy gray sky over the cape. I recall long strings of ibis, white as dune bones, crossin that pewter sky inland, and white flowers swayin kind of funny against that dead brown grass of the savanna, that dull Glades horizon. Offshore, the sky was turnin into silver, and the bright green of the mangrove clumps had blackened. There was a kind of transparent line on the south horizon, a real peculiar sky, and them little keys looked suspended in the air. I didn’t like the look of it, and I don’t imagine Guy Bradley liked it, neither. 

Accordin to what Dick Sawyer and the other crewman said in court, Tom Smith and his brother Dan was still out huntin, over on the key. When Guy’s skiff come up alongside, Old Man Smith fired a shot, and they come in. Never bothered to hide their birds, brought ’em right in under the warden’s nose, made sure he saw ’em. Guy told ’em to stop, but they paid no mind, went aboard and down in into the cabin, as if to say, “Well now, ye Audibone sonofabitch, what you aim to do about it?” So Guy told Walt Smith that his older boy was under arrest and Smith said, “You want Tom, you better come and get him.” Walt Smith had his Winchester on his arm, never tried to hide it. Dick Sawyer didn’t want no part of it, so him and the other crewman, Ethridge, stayed below, but both of ’em heard Bradley’s answer. He said, “Put down that rifle, then, and I will come aboard.” He had hardly spoke when there come two quick shots. 

That evenin we see Smith’s boat come into Flamingo. He picked up his family and took off again. When Guy never showed up, Fronie got to worryin and come over to see me. She said, “Gene, I’d sure appreciate you have a look first thing in the morning, cause my man ain’t home.” So at daybreak I started across. Not a sign of nothin at Bird Key, but lookin back toward the coast, I seen Guy’s little sailin sloop drifted in on shore. I found the poor feller slumped over forward, shot in the throat.

Old Man Smith went straight back to Key West, and first thing he done was spread the word that the warden was dead and Ed Watson must of killed him. When it turned out Watson was up north, he changed his story, admitted he might of done the job himself, called it self-defense. Said Guy fired first with malice aforesight or some such, and showed two bullets he had dug out his mast to prove it. Guy Bradley not being the kind to miss a man at point-blank range, folks had to suspect that Smith had took and shot them holes himself, but Dick Sawyer and the other feller, Ethridge, they cleared out of Key West, didn’t care to testify for Smith nor against him—didn’t want not trouble. 

I went over there and I told the grand jury that all six cartridges was still in Guy’s revolver when I found him. Smith’s bullet had gone in his neck and down his spine as it fired from above, and he must of took a long time dyin. And my daddy, Steve L. Roberts, who built Guy’s coffin and helped us boys bury him in the white-shell ridge back of Guy’s beach, he told that jury what Smith told him only two months before, that next time Bradley tried arrestin any Smiths, he aimed to kill him. That was a message he meant Guy to receive, and Guy received it. Guy Bradley knew about that threat when he sailed out there. 

Well, them young Smiths stepped up to that witness stand and swore on their Smith family honor that Guy Bradley weren’t nothing but a plumer hidin behind all that Audubonin, that he was still partners with his brother Lou and all us Roberts boys, who was not only mainlanders but the most bloodthirstiest butchers of them poor li’l aigrets in all south Florida. And they swore that Warden Bradley, bein a Mainlander, had been harassin God-fearin Key Westers cause they give his mainlander partners too much competition, and they also swore that Bradley had pulled out a revolver, which obliged their ever loving daddy to fire in self-defense. Maybe Guy’s revolver dropped overboard or something.

Well, I seen it next day. He never fired.  

The grand jury was dead set against putting a Key West man on trail, especially a former officer of the Confederate Army. They refused to indict a well-knowed poacher who admitted to the killin of a lawman, and they opened up the jailhouse door and sent him home. Yessir, ol’ Walt come clear in court, and he hardly took his first breath of fresh air out in the street when he started boastin how he’d kept his word, Smith family honor. Told all about how he’d stood up to that sonofabitchin warden and killed him deader’n a doornail with one bullet.

Not knowing what else we could do, us Fillymingo people burned down Walt Smith’s shack, but it weren’t much more than a henhouse to start of with. Didn’t even have a “loser,’ which is what us Fillymingo folks called the little hall behind the door where you lost your mosquitoes comin in. Yep, we burned Ol’ Cap’n Sniper right out of our settlement, and his family honor along with him, but none of that done too much good for the widow Fronie and her two fatherless boys.

Course, them Audubons made Guy a hero, got the case all writ up in the New York newspapers. Later them bird lovers come back—Frank Chapman, Louis Fuertes, A. C. Bent. I hobnobbed with ’em some. Guy’s brother Lou and my brother Melch took them men to Cuthbert Lake, and Mr. Chapman told me on his way back that Cuthbert Lake was the best of the big rookeries left in the whole darn country of America. “Good thing you boys never come acrost it earlier,” he said, and give us a big wink.

Maybe four years later, around 19 and 09, the same breed of skunk would waylay another Audubon, C.G. MacLeod up at Charlotte Harbor. Found his sunk skiff, found his hat, which had two ax marks through it. They never came up with the body, and nobody was ever brought to court. Likely they tried to blame that one on Ed Watson, too.

The True Story: An Unsolved Murder

Guy Bradley grew up in Lantana, Florida, near Palm Beach. His father, Edwin, was an agent for Henry Flagler’s Model Land Company. Like most Floridians, Guy and his brother Louis were hunters. In 1885, when Guy was 15, they accompanied the ornithologist Jean Chevelier on the sloop Bonton, traveling for several weeks from the Miami River south through the Keys and north again to Tampa Bay. The three men hunted common and snowy egrets and other species for their valuable feathers. In 1897 the Bradleys moved to Flamingo, at the tip of Florida on Cape Sable, where Guy and Louis continued hunting. Meanwhile, the plume birds—especially the egrets—had seriously declined in numbers, and in 1901 the state outlawed plume hunting.

The following year, Bradley was hired by William Dutcher, who would be the first president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, as Florida’s first warden. He was charged with protecting the plume birds, especially as their last great breeding site, a small island in the Everglades called Cuthbert Rookery. This put him in immediate conflict with a former hunting partner, Captain Walter Smith, whose son he arrested on several occasions. Smith warned the he would kill Bradley the next time Bradley tried to arrest Tom Smith. In 1904 the warden mentioned to Frank Chapman, an Audubon ornithologist, that he did not suppose he had very long to live. He was murdered on July 8, 1905. 

In this period E.J. “Ed” Watson, a cane planter with a dark reputation, was a popular suspect for every violent death in southwest Florida, and he was blamed for Bradley’s. However, he was great friends with the Roberts family, who were close friends and neighbors of the Bradleys, so Watson was presumably a friends of theirs as well. It was Gene Roberts who found Guy Bradley’s body the morning after he was killed.—P.M.

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