DETAILED MAP OF MONTANA

3-7-77 Instilled Fear in Lawless Montanans Look closely and you’ll see the numbers 3-7-77 in some interesting places: on the shoulder patches of Montana Highway Patrol officers, on the jumpsuits of Montana Air National Guard pilots, and, most revealing, above the front entrance to the historic Robber’s Roost roadhouse outside Laurin. The origin of these numbers has always been a mystery, but in the late 1870s and early 1880s everyone in Montana’s gold country knew what they represented: vigilante justice.

The numbers were a reference to an 1860s gang who hunted down thieving road agents and hanged them without trials. As the vigilante legend has grown over the years, the story goes that if the numbers appeared in the middle of the night on a man’s cabin, he knew he had precious little time to get out of Dodge: precisely 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds, according to local lore. Officially, this method of law enforcement was frowned upon, but it’s understandable why lawmen looked the other way. Afer all, for a time, the rowdy Alder Gulch area was as crime-free as anyplace in Montana.

Thing is, history and legend don’t quite align. The vigilantes’ heyday was in 1864, when within five weeks they rode through a number of mining camps and hanged twenty-one ne’er-do-wells, one being a local sheriff. Such thirst for this unique brand of frontier justice continued until about 1870, when a combination of the arrival of new residents via train and the departure of miners for the gold in the Black Hills briefly led to a kinder, gentler society.

It wasn’t until 1879, though, after the unexplained murder of a Helena businessman led the town’s newspaper editor to call for vengeance and the rebirth of 1864 vigilante justice, that the numbers 3-7-77 first appeared, all in conspicuous locations around the capital city.

Though careful study has shown the numbers have no relation to the actual vigilantes of the 1860s, the two are inextricably linked in history, and today the numbers are a symbol of Montana law enforcement. The word vigilante remains popular in Montana, where it appears on a sports stadium, a rodeo’s name, and a popular theater group’s marquis.

Speculation about the meaning of the numbers remains a subject of debate, though we’re inclined to believe the period actors at Nevada City, who say with conviction that 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds was the time rascals had to leave town before justice was served. A solid, shiver-inducing runner-up: 3-7-77 refers to the width, length, and depth (the latter in inches) of a thief’s grave.

Sheridan: Booze & Buns ($, 406-842-5790 Tues.-Sat.) has more than 380 wine labels, well-stocked liquor shelves, a fine selection of coffee, and tasty pastries that includes the ultimate “sticky bun.” It’s the place in Sheridan to get your giddy-up goin’.

Twin bridges: The Old Hotel ($$$, 406-684-5959, D, Tues.-Sat.) has a Pacific island flair to its ever-changing menu complemented by a well-chosen wine list that would fit any foodie city’s menu. The soups (apple walnut, if you’re lucky) and kitchen-made sorbet are just two of many extraordinary touches. Owners Bill and Paula Kinoshita celebrated their 10-year anniversary in 2015 and plan to stay open year-round, but with limited winter hours. Extended summer hours include a Sunday brunch. For casual dining, The Shack ($/$$, 406-684-5050, B[Sat.-Sun.]/L/D), with its hand-tossed pizzas, true-greens salad, stacked sandwiches, cold brews on tap, and down-home service, gets the job done. The Shack recently added a breakfast buffet on Sundays that’s quite popular with townies. Since The Wagon Wheel ($/$$, 406-684-5099) has new owners, we optimistically include it in our recommendations. If you’re lucky, their smoked prime rib will be on the menu. la hood The historic La Hood Park Supper Club ($$/$$$, 406-287-3281, L/D, Wed. Mon.) has credible hand-cut steaks, seafood, and baby-back ribs served against a backdrop of local western paintings. Summer floaters on the Jefferson River know the best reason to stop is for a margarita and to hang in the well-worn bar or on the splintery back deck overlooking the river. Sad to say, owner Steve Darnell has passed, but his wife, Mary, is still cooking up the same home-style goodness while searching for a buyer for a business she’s owned since 1993.

Best Bars

Three forks: The Sacajawea Bar (406-285-6515) is a classic Montana bar, only with polished boots. There are a few slot machines along the perimeter, a card room for live poker, several flat-screen TVs affording views for everyone, a glossy wooden bar, and an attractive back bar. For imbibers, there are pub tables, lower four-tops, and a place for the band to set up on Friday and Saturday nights. They even have enough floor space for some cowboy two-steppin’ and line dancin’. High-end cocktails or shots, low-end domestic beer or fine wine, martinis or trendy cocktails whatever you’re looking for, they’ll pour it. The Sac’s food selection should make everyone happy, too. If not, most nights you can order from the dining room menu. Life is simply sweeter at the Sac. Virginia city: The dark and musty Pioneer Bar (406-843-5550) doesn’t do much dressing up, but it isn’t necessary. And maybe that’s why this is where the locals hang, including the actors from the raunchy Brewery Follies after they’ve left another crowd howling and blushing. The walls are cluttered with historical artifacts, including a bison wall mount with a plaque telling the sad saga of the shaggy beast that once roamed the prairies by the tens of millions. Consider yourself fortunate if you happen by on Bloody Mary Day. During the summer you can order food from the Virginia City Cafe’s menu next door. The rest of the year, it’s pizza at Bob’s Place or bust not a bad consolation prize, actually.

Norris: Don’t let the slightly worn biker bar facade scare you away. You’ll be glad you stopped at the Norris Bar, (406-685-3304) at the junction of US 287 and MT 84. We admit, we drove past more than a few times because it seemed a bit uninviting. Boy, were we surprised when we finally stopped. The amiable proprietor with an attitude, Carmen, is quick with a welcoming smile and laugh that usually turns into a snort. She makes and sells mouth-watering barbecue sauces, marinades, and salad dressings, and she weaves some magic in her smaller-than-a-breadbox kitchen, which is really just a nook in the wall. There is an outside grill, only open in summer, that expands her food selection beyond the meatball sandwich, homemade soup, and nightly sandwich special. What will surprise you after the welcoming aura is the genuine goodness going on in this bar. Old-timers are ready to talk to newcomers, fly fishermen are at ease talking with hook-and-bullet types, and all are there to see what Carmen comes up with next. One night, she paid a young couple drifting through in need of gas money to play a (very) short set for her patrons. Carmen and her husband, Steve, have dreams of selling the bar and doing something different, but we hope they hang on, at least for a while. Oh, and about her reported “attitude”? She only uses it on people who need it.

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