Boot-Hills and Their Stories

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 whisky 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 leathern 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 sand hills 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.

To-day 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 Weiser/Legends of America, September, 2017.

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

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