Boot-Hills and Their Stories

They are passing from bleak graveyards on the alkali flats and in the northern mountains where the sage-brush meets the pines: gaunt men in laced boots and faded blue overalls who traveled once too often through the desert’s mirage searching for the golden ledges; big-boned hard rock men who died in underground passages where the steel was battering the living granite; men with soft hands and cold eyes who fattened on the fruits of robbery and murder.

This swarthy black-haired one in the soft silk shirt and spotless raiment of the gambler is Cherokee Bob, who killed and plundered unchallenged throughout eastern Washington and Idaho during the early 1860s; until the camp of Florence, Idaho celebrated its third New Year’s Eve with a ball in which respectability held sway, and he took his consort there to mingle with the wives of others. Then he kindled a flame of resentment which his blackest murders had failed to rouse. The next morning the entire camp turned out to drive him away together with Bill Willoughby, his partner. The two retreated slowly, from building to building, facing the mob. Shotguns bellowed; rifle-bullets sang about their ears, and they answered with their revolvers, until death left their trigger fingers limp.

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 winter-time. This is Henry Plummer. Behind him troop thirty others, bearded men, and the evil of their deeds is plainly written on their features; the members of his band who 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 for them while he held the office. Finally such men as Sam Hauser, N. P. Langford, J. X. Beidler, and Colonel W. F. Saunders took their lives in their hands and 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 who was willing to take his share of chances in a shooting affair; excepting 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. There is, in the poise of his head and in his eyes, a fierce intolerance. This is Joe Phy. Many years have passed since they buried him in the little boot-hill at Florence, Arizona. 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 a wonderful 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 summer time, where forests of giant cacti stretched for miles like the pine woods that cloaked the highter 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. Election came and the rancor of the reformers 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 room was filled with the black powder fumes.

Joe Phy

Joe Phy

Then Pete Gabriel stood swaying within arm’s length of Joe Phy’s prostrate 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.

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