Boot-Hills and Their Stories

Henry Plummer

Henry Plummer

Here comes one with catlike tread, slender and with a dignity of presence which proclaims the gentleman. But when you glance at the lean immobile face, there is that in the pale eyes which checks your blood; their gray is like the gray of old ice late in the wintertime. This is Henry Plummer. Behind him troop thirty others, bearded men, and the evil of their deeds is written on their features; the members of his band slew for gold, leaving the dead to mark their trail through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. In Alder Gulch, their leader was elected sheriff and planned their murders while holding the office. Finally, such men as Sam Hauser, N. P. Langford, J. X. Beidler, and Colonel W. F. Saunders took their lives into their hands. They organized a vigilance committee at Virginia City. They got their evidence, and in January 1864, they lynched the sheriff and his thirty, whose deeds would make a long story were they worthy of a place within this chronicle. But the mining camps never produced the type of desperado willing to take his share of chances in a shooting affair, except when the cattle country was close by. The bad man who could command a measure of admiration always was a horseman.

Here pass those who died boldly in the glaring lands by the Arizona border: a multitude of sunburned men with revolvers swinging low beside their hips and in their hands the deadly Winchesters. One comes among them, rugged of frame, big-featured, red from weather and the fullness of his blood. In the poise of his head and in his eyes, there is a fierce intolerance. This is Joe Phy. Since they buried him in the little boot hill at Florence, Arizona, many years have passed. Today the town is as conventional as any Eastern village, but it saw a time when men lived up to the rude clean code of our American age of chivalry. During that era, Joe Phy met his end with a grimness befitting a son of the Old West.

Florence was the county seat, and Pete Gabriel was sheriff. He was a handsome man with his twisted mustache and Napoleon goatee, free-handed with his money, and widely liked. Moreover, he was an excellent shot with his rifle and deadly quick with a single-action revolver. Among the gunfighters of southern Arizona, none was better known than he, and Joe Phy was his deputy.

Superstition Mountain, Arizona

Superstition Mountain, Arizona

The county of Pinal extended from the glaring flats below the Gila River northward beyond the Superstition Mountains, a savage land where the sun was killing hot in the summertime, where forests of giant cacti stretched for miles like the pine woods that cloaked the higher plateaus. Phy and Gabriel rode together through the country on many a bold errand; they shared their blankets and the hardships of dry camps; they fought beside each other while the bullets of wanted men snarled, ricocheting from the rocks about them.

Then politics brought a rift in their friendship and the day came when the deputy ran for office against his former chief. The campaign was made bitter by accusations. There was, men said, a courthouse ring; the big companies were dodging taxes, and the small ranchers were getting the worst of it. The election came, and the reformers’ rancor grew hotter when the count showed that Gabriel had won. Many openly proclaimed that the courthouse crowd had juggled with the ballots, and Phy was among these. When a contest was instituted, and the result of the election was carried to the courts, he grew to hate Gabriel. The hatred flamed within him until he could stand it no longer, and one night he hunted the town over until he found the sheriff in Keating’s Saloon.

“Pete,” he said, “I’m going home after my sixshooter, and I’m coming back to fight it out with you. Get ready while I’m gone.”

And Gabriel answered quietly, “All right, Joe. I’ll be here when you come back.”

The swinging doors closed behind Phy’s back, and the sheriff turned to the man behind the bar.

“Call ’em up,” he said. “This is on me.” He ordered whisky and those who lined up beside him kept looking toward the street entrance, but he remained with his back to the swinging doors. The minutes passed; the doors flew open. Within the threshold Joe Phy halted.

”Commence!” he shouted and flung an oath after the word. ” Commence!”

Pete Gabriel turned, and his revolver flew from its holster, spitting fire. Phy’s forty-five ejected a thin stream of orange flame. The voices of the weapons mingled in one loud explosion. The two men took a pace toward each other, and the smoke grew thicker as they shot again in unison. They came on slowly, pulling the triggers until the black powder fumes filled the room.

Joe Phy

Joe Phy

Then Pete Gabriel stood swaying within arm’s length of Joe Phy’s prone form. And as he struggled against the mortal weakness which was now creeping through his lead-riddled body, the man on the floor whispered,

“I cain’t get up. Get down. We’ll finish it with knives.”

“I guess we’ve both of us got enough,” the sheriff muttered, and staggered out through the door, to lie all night in a nearby corral and live for two years afterward with a bullet through his kidneys.

Joe Phy died hard on the saloon floor. Those in the room gathered about him, and Johnny Murphy strove to lift his head that they might give him a sip of water. A year before, he and two others had slain Joe Levy, a faro-dealer in Tucson, and they had done it foully from behind. Since that time men had avoided him, speaking to him only when it was absolutely necessary, and his hair had turned snow-white. Joe Phy opened his eyes and recognized his would-be helper.

“Don’t you dare lay a hand on me,” he cried, “you murderer,” and struck Murphy full in the face. His hand fell limply back. The breath had departed from his body with that blow.

The long procession is waning. Now those are coming whose headboards were erected in the early 1880s. A company of swarthy black-eyed riders in the flaring trousers and steep-crowned sombreros of Mexico jog along elbow to elbow with hard-eyed horsemen from the valleys of the San Simon and the Animas. Smuggler and cow-thief, a story in their passing centers about a deep gorge near the place where the boundary between New Mexico and Arizona meets the international line. That story goes a long way back.

Down in the southwestern corner of the Animas Valley, the Guadalupe Canon trail approached the gorge from which it got its name. In the days when the American colonists were still contented with Great Britain’s rule, it was a main thoroughfare between the Pinos Altos mines and old Mexico. Long trains of pack-mules, laden with treasure which the Spaniards had delved from the sun-baked mountains near where Silver City now stands, traveled this route. Apaches and bandits made many an attack on them in the canon.

The Pinos Altos mines were abandoned. The trail fell into disuse. The years passed by. The ’49 rush brought new travelers of another breed who beat down the old track again. Passing through the gorge they too found the Apache lurking among the rocks and more than one old argonaut laid down his eight-square rifle for the last time within the shadow of those arid cliffs.

Old Man Clanton came with one of these ’49 outfits, a typical specimen of that lean-jawed leather-faced breed who have fought Indians, lynched Mexicans, and established themselves in hundreds of dreary outposts beyond the last settlements. He went on to California, failed to find the gold, and returned to the upper San Pedro Valley sometime during the latter seventies. Here he ” raised his family,” as the old expression has it, and his sons grew up, Finn, Ike, and Billy. Those were wild days, and the two last-named boys became more proficient with rope, running-iron, and forty-five revolver than they ever did with their school books. In time they were known as rustlers and in the lawless town of Charleston by the San Pedro River they fell in with Curly Bill. When the outlaw went eastward into the valleys of the San Simon and the Animas, the two young Clantons went with him. The cow-thieves of the San Simon and the Animas did not go to the trouble of altering brands or “sleeping,” as their successors have in later years, but drove entire herds and sold them, as they were, to shippers. Occasionally they rode down into Sonora to raid the ranges south of the border. One July day in 1881 a number of them embarked on such an expedition and they gathered a bunch of several hundred longhorns. They brought them up through Guadalupe Canon and came northward to the Double Dobe Ranch. Here they left the cattle with a man to hold them, while they rode over to Curly Bill’s place, not far distant.

But the Mexicans had been suffering from this sort of depredations until patience had ceased to be a virtue and a band of thirty dusky vaqueros were following the trail of those stolen longhorns. On the afternoon of July 26, the man who was riding herd caught sight of the steep-crowned sombreros coming out through the mirage on the flats to the south. He waited only long enough to satisfy himself as to the nationality of the riders, then clapped spurs to his pony and raced to Curly Bill’s place.

Cattle Rustling

Cattle Rustling

It took the rustlers some time to saddle up. When they arrived at the Double Dobe they found nothing of their former prizes but a fresh trail. They made the best speed they could, but the Mexicans were “shoving those cattle hard,” as the old-timers say. They had a good lead and they held it clear to Guadalupe Canon. The running fight that followed lasted halfway through the gorge. The men from Sonora were seasoned hands at Indian warfare, and they had no mind to give up their beef. They left a small rear-guard, who fell back slowly from rock to rock while their companions urged the longhorns to a run. The shouts of “Toro! Toro! Vaca! Vaca”! mingled with the crackling of the rifles. And when the rustlers finally routed the stubborn defenders to chase the herders on through the ravine and reassemble the panic-stricken stock, they took back three dead men across their saddles. They buried the bodies at the Cloverdale ranch, and so started a lonely little boot hill whose headboards showed on the edge of the mesa for many years.

There came now to the old Guadalupe Canon trail a new traffic. Mexican smugglers who formerly crossed the boundary at the southern end of the San Pedro Valley shifted their route and traveled northward to Silver City. They were hard men, accustomed to warring with the Apache, bandits, and border officers. They banded together in formidable outfits to guard the Dobie dollars which loaded down the aparejos during the northern journey. And Curly Bill’s companions saw them passing on more than one occasion: a scuffle of hoofs, a haze of dust, through which showed the swarthy faces of the outriders under the great sombreros—and, what lingered longest in the memories of these hard-faced men of the Animas, the pleasant dull chink of the Dobie dollars in the rawhide pack-sacks.

In Galeyville the rustlers talked the matter over. It was a simple problem: go and get the money. They went one day and made their camp near Guadalupe Canon. They sent scouts on through the gorge to watch the country from the mesa above the spot where John Slaughter’s ranch buildings stood. One hot noontide, the scouts came riding in.

“There’s a big outfit coming. Must be a dozen mules and nigh on to thirty men.” The outlaws were in the saddle before those who brought the tidings had time to breathe their horses.

In those days you were supposed to give a man what the old-timers called an even break before you killed him. The supposition was lived up to by the chivalrous and ignored by many who gained significant reputations. But when it came to Mexicans, there was not even that ideal to attain; they were not rated as full-fledged human beings; to slay one meant no addition to the notches on one’s gun, nor did one feel obliged to observe the rules of fair play. You simply killed your greaser in the most expeditious manner possible and then forgot about it. The rustlers went about the business according to this custom. Save for Curly Bill the members of the party left their horses in charge of a man around a turn of the gorge. They hid behind the rocks on the steep mountainside and waited while their burly leader rode slowly to meet the smugglers.

The train was traveling after the Mexican fashion, which is very much like the Spanish California manner of driving a herd. The chief of the outfit rode in the lead some distance before the first pack-mule. The laden animals followed in single file. Flanking them on each side were the armed guards, with one or two closing in on the rear. Thus they came, winding their way among the stark rocks and the clumps of Spanish bayonet, and when the leader caught sight of Curly Bill from under his huge, silver decked sombrero, he reined in his horse; his grip tightened on the rifle which he carried across his saddle. The outriders pulled up; there was a low rattle of shifting weapons and the bell of the first mule stopped tinkling as the train came to a stand.

But the strange rider was alone. The leader raised his arm in signal, and the straggling procession resumed its advance. The solitary American rode on until he was alongside their headman.

“Buenos dias, Senor,” he said and checked his pony. The Mexican answered. The pair shook hands. When they had talked for some moments, Curly Bill turned and rode back up the canon beside the smuggler. The pack-train followed and the men on the flanks eased their rifles back into the sheaths. They traveled until the lead mule had passed the last hidden rustler.

Curly Bill Brocius

Curly Bill Brocius

Curly Bill’s right hand swept to his revolver holster and came on upward clutching the weapon’s butt. The movement was so quick that before those looking at him grasped its meaning, the hot rocks were bandying echoes of the report. The Mexican was sliding from his saddle, quite dead. The outlaw was spurring his pony up the mountainside.

Now the outriders dragged their rifles from the sheaths but while they were seeking to line their sights on the murderer the rustlers opened fire on them. Those cow-thieves of the Animas were good shots; the range was brief. The flat explosions of the Winchesters, the scuffling of hoofs, the voices of dark-skinned riders calling upon their saints as they pitched forward from their frenzied horses, dying; the squealing of a hit burro; these things the arid cliffs heard and repeated to one another. And then the rat-tat-tat of hoofbeats as the surviving smugglers fled westward.

That is the way the rustlers told the story in Galeyville amid grim laughter; and the voices of the narrators were raised to carry above the staccato pounding of the pianos, the scuffling of boot heels on the dance-hall floors, the shrill mirthless outcries of rouge-bedizened women, and the resonant slapping of Dobie dollars on the unpainted pine bars. Now and again the recitals were interrupted by the roaring of forty-five revolvers as the more fervid celebrants showed their expertness at marksmanship by shooting the French heels from the shoes of the dance-hall girls.

John Ringo, the king of the outlaws, got wind of what was going on and rode over from Tombstone, silent as usual, and with that saturninity of expression which grew darker as the whiskey began to work within him. He took no part in the celebration but sat through one day and two blazing nights, dumbly sardonic, at a round table. Save for his dark countenance, the faces which ringed that table were changing constantly. Men came noisily, sat down for a time, and departed at length in chastened silence as the poker game which he had organized went on and on—until a large share of those Dobie dollars passed unto him. Then, with the sudden flare of recklessness which invariably came to him sooner or later, he in his turn flung away the silver over the unpainted bars. So the incident passed and was forgotten—by the rustlers.

The Mexicans did not forget.

Old Man Clanton started with a Tombstone butcher and three others on a journey for the Animas Valley a few weeks later. They were going to buy beef cattle and they took the Guadalupe Canon route. One night they made camp near the middle of the gorge. And while they slept a dozen swarthy men, who wore the steep-crowned sombreros and the trousers with leather facings which were a part of every Mexican smuggler’s costume, came creeping in and out among the boulders like the Apache whose ways they had studied in years of border warfare.

They had waited a long time in the lofty mountains south of the boundary, watching the malapi flats for a party of Americans, and at last, these had come. They had dogged their trail through the long hot afternoon, keeping well back lest they should be discovered. Now they were closing in. The air grew cooler, and the hour of dawn approached. They slipped, black shadows a little deeper than the night which enfolded them. The light climbed up the eastern sky and leaked down between the cliffs; the cold gray dusk which comes before the dawn. The shadows melted slowly; the heavens began to blush. Down here a man could line the notch of his hindsight with the bead. A pebble tinkled in the arid watercourse. One of the sleepers stirred in ids blankets. He caught the sound, opened his eyes, and saw the crown of a sombrero rising behind a rock. He leaped from his bed and flung himself among a clump of boulders just as the rifles began to talk.

Two or three cowboys were lounging about the Cloverdale ranch-house on a blazing summer afternoon when a queer figure came into sight upon the palpitating plain. The spectacle of a man on foot was so uncommon in those days that they had a hard time making themselves believe that this form, which at times took distorted shapes in the wavering overheated air, was that of a human being. Then they set forth to meet him, and they brought the one survivor of the Canton party to the ranch-house. His bare feet were bleeding; he was half-clad, and his tongue was swollen with thirst. They got his story and they rode to Guadalupe Canon where they found the bodies of his companions. They buried them on the little boot hill overlooking the ranch buildings.

But the episode was not yet finished.

Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo

Time went by. Billy Clanton and the two McLowry boys, who are said to have been parties to the Dobie Dollar Holdup, died one autumn morning fighting it out against the Earp faction in Tombstone’s street. Curly Bill’s fate remains something of a mystery, but one story has it that Wyatt Earp killed him near Globe, Arizona two years or so later. John Ringo killed himself up in the San Simon, delirious from thirst. Rattlesnake Bill, who helped to spend the Mexican silver, was shot down by a fellow rustler in Galeyville. Jake Gauz, another of the participants, was lynched for horse-stealing not far from the head of Turkey Creek Canon.

So they went one after the other, and it is possible that every man who was present at the massacre of the Mexicans died with his boots on.

“Those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” The words come from one who rides near the grim procession’s end; a slim young fellow, beardless, his hair hanging to his shoulders. It is the boy whom men called Billy the Kid. He quoted the passage to Pat Garret when the Lincoln County sheriff and his posse were taking him and his captured companions to Santa Fe.

“Those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Only a few nights before he spoke, Tom O’Folliard, one of the last of his band, had fallen from his horse with a bullet through his chest in Fort Sumner to die, cursing the tall silent sheriff, in the room where the posse had carried him. Two mornings afterward at the Arroyo Tivan, Charley Bowdre had staggered into the stone house where the outlaws were hiding, wounded unto death by the rifles of these same pursuers.

“Charley, you’re done for. Go out and see if you can’t get one of them,” Billy the Kid had told the dying man, and through the crack of the door had watched him stumbling over the frozen snow toward the posse, while his numbed fingers fumbled with his revolver butt in a final access of vain effort.

And now this youth, the deadliest of the Southwestern outlaws, spoke from the Scriptures to Pat Garret; perhaps it was all of his Bible that he knew. He said it in December. In July Garret shot him in Pete Maxwell’s room at Fort Sumner. The years went by. One day the former sheriff fell in the sandhills west of Tularosa with an assassin’s bullet in his back.

Thus, throughout the Old West: bad man and frontier officer, Indian fighter, cowboy, stage driver, trooper, and faro dealer, they lived their lives in accordance with bold customs which bridged the gap between savagery and modern civilization. In a strange land they did the best they could; and, bad or good, they came to their ends with a fine unflinching disregard for the supreme adventure.

Today fat prairie corn-fields stand tasseled in the sunlight, the smoke of lusty young cities rises black against the sky; while automobiles speed upon concrete highways over the forgotten graveyards where their bones lie.

By Frederick Ritchie Bechdolt, 1922. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2021.

About This Article:  Much of this article was excerpted from the book When the West Was Young by Frederick Ritchie Bechdolt; The Century Co., New York, 1922. However, the text as it appears here is not verbatim, as it has been heavily edited for clarification, truncated, and updated for the modern reader.

Also See:

Cemeteries – Outdoor Museums of the Forgotten Past

Death Scenes of Desperadoes

Triggerfingeritis & The Old West Gunman

Historical Accounts of American History