A whiskey bottle left on the grave a toast to the past

HARPER, Ore. - A bottle of whiskey leans against a headstone, almost invisible in the sagebrush and weeds around Pony Express rider Charlie Becker's grave in the eastern Oregon high desert.

It is about half full, and its origin is something of a mystery hereabouts, because Becker was known to be a nonsmoker and teetotaler until his death at age 90 on Aug. 28, 1925.

The bottle may have a new owner soon, because the Indian Creek Ranch where Becker's grave is located is for sale for $8 million.

"Charlie used to come up here and sit on a boulder and watch the ranch with a dog named Colonel," said Gene Wolf, 48, a Wilsonville real-estate agent, as he climbed the knoll to Becker's grave. "They blasted the tomb that they put his casket in out of that boulder."

Becker, by most accounts, was among eastern Oregon's most colorful frontier characters. Barely 5 feet tall, he joined the Pony Express in 1860, perhaps drawn by newspaper advertisements seeking "young, skinny, wiry fellows" who were "willing to risk death daily.

Orphans preferred."

He earned $25 a week and rode for most of the Pony Express' brief existence, from April 3, 1860, until Oct. 26, 1861.

He was shot at and had his horse stolen, but he never lost his mail sacks.

He helped carry the news of Abraham Lincoln's presidential election, a message that sped from coast to coast in seven days and 19 hours, a record for the time, according to the September 1966 Oregon Historical Quarterly.

Among Becker's friends were frontiersmen Jim Bridger; "Buffalo Bill" Cody; Pegleg Smith, who earned his nickname by amputating his own leg; and outlaw Jack Slade, later hanged by vigilantes.

Becker started his ranch in the 1870s, and one historical account places him among Oregon's "cattle kings."

He was a guest of President Warren G. Harding at the July 3, 1923, dedication of the Old Oregon Trail Highway in the Blue Mountain town of Meacham, according to the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

The president invited Becker to accompany him to Alaska, but Becker declined, saying he had to return home and stack hay.

Among the landmarks on the 26,430-acre Indian Creek Ranch is a ghost town called Westfall and an old stone jail there.

One of the jail's last occupants was a man accused of killing town Marshal Jasper Westfall in a 1912 gunfight, said Wolf, whose Wilsonville real-estate firm, Wolf N.W. Properties, is marketing the property.

Wolf says the ranch has changed hands at least five times since Becker's death and has grown to include two adjoining ranches.

The property, currently owned by Stan and Brad Shephard, owners of Shephards Greenhouses of Aurora, supports about 2,000 cattle.

Author Jack Evans, 72, of La Grande said it wasn't uncommon for men of the frontier to tuck a whiskey bottle in a pal's casket or pour a drink on his grave when they laid him to rest.

But Evans said he had never heard of anybody leaving a bottle on a grave.

That's because putting a whiskey bottle on a grave is a tradition of the New West, claims Charlie Becker's great-grandson, Togo Dice, 68, a retired Vale rancher.

Dice said the adult children of a former cowhand on the Indian Creek Ranch scattered their father's ashes near Becker's grave about five years ago and left the bottle of whiskey.

"His kids always take a drink out of it when they come up there," he said.