April 4, 1878, one of the most remarkable gunfights that ever took place in the Old West pitted one man against eight skilled gunslingers in what would become the frontier legend of the Battle of Blazer’s Mill.
Western cowboy, buffalo hunter, and frontiersman, little is known of Andrew L. Robert’s early life or where he came from. Legend has it that he was known as Bill Williams in Texas, serving as a Texas Ranger. His history also tells us that he fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, reached the rank of sergeant before his discharge, rode with Buffalo Bill Cody hunting bison, and had a fierce reputation as an Indian Fighter.
Somewhere along the line, he took a load of buckshot in his right arm, which made it impossible for him to raise his rifle higher than his hip. This earned him the nickname “Buckshot” Roberts but did little to hamper his deadly aim.
When the Lincoln County War in New Mexico began to brew in the mid-1870s, Roberts ran a small ranch in the Ruidoso Valley near Lincoln. Most accounts say that Roberts was a member of the Dolan–Murphy Faction, monopolizing the county’s trade until “upstarts” Alexander McSween and John Tunstall began to challenge their monopoly, ultimately leading to the Lincoln County War. Because Roberts sometimes worked for James Dolan and was a known friend of Lawrence Murphy, he was automatically associated with the Dolan Faction; however, history tells us that he preferred to be alone, didn’t upset easily, and was determined to have no part in the violence that began to erupt in the dispute for power in Lincoln County. When told he needed to choose his side in the conflict, he curtly replied that he intended to take neither side, that he had seen fighting enough in his time and would fight no man’s battle for him.
However, when the Dolan-Murphy faction shot down John Tunstall on February 18, 1878, it was automatically assumed that Roberts was a part of the group. A warrant was soon issued for his arrest. In response, Roberts put his ranch up for sale, planning on leaving the area for good. While staying at a friend’s home near Blazer’sMill, his property was sold, and he waited eagerly for his check. In the meantime, Constable Dick Brewer formed the Regulators to search for Tunstall’smurderers.
Roberts’payment was to be delivered to Blazer’s Mill, and he often checked to see if it had arrived. When he spied a buckboard traveling toward the Mill on April 4, 1878, Roberts headed in that direction, hoping the ranch payment might be among the delivery. Roberts didn’t know that the Regulators were at the Mill, with their horses hitched around back.
One of the most remarkable gunfights that ever took place in the Old West would occur in the next few minutes, with Roberts fighting for his life against eight skilled gunslingers and, in the end, creating a frontier legend.
Buckshot Roberts Last Stand
Blazer’sMill was a sawmill and trading post, including a post office, located on the Rio Tularosa, with several other buildings, including a restaurant, scattered close by. As the Regulators, including Dick Brewer, Frank & George Coe, John Middleton, Doc Scurlock, Charles Bowdre, Henry Brown, Frank MacNab, and Billy the Kid, were eating in a nearby building, Roberts hitched his mule in front of the mill and went inside to see if his payment had been delivered.
The Regulators, who had just killed Sheriff William Brady three days earlier, sat casually eating when Frank Coe spied Roberts going into the mill. Coe soon approached Roberts attempting to talk him into surrendering. However, Roberts felt sure if he surrendered, he would be killed by the vengeful Regulators and refused. Regulator leader Dick Brewer soon became impatient with the stand-off and sent more men outside to take Roberts by force.
At the sight of the armed men, Roberts grabbed his rifle and fired, hitting Charlie Bowdre’sbelt buckle and knocking the wind out of him. Bowdre, on the other hand, was luckier, hitting Roberts in the abdomen. Though severely wounded, Roberts kept shooting as he retreated to the doorway of the mill, hitting John Middleton in the chest, striking Scurlock’spistol, hitting George Coe in the right hand, taking off his thumb and trigger finger, and grazing Billy the Kid’s arm.
Finally, Roberts’ rifle was spent, and Billy the Kid rushed the wounded man, only to be knocked senseless by the barrel of Roberts’ rifle.
The gunman then barricaded himself in the mill, armed himself with another rifle, and prepared to continue his defense. However, the Regulators halted their pursuit, tending to their wounded and trying to talk Roberts out. Leader Dick Brewer, however, was frustrated at his men and circled to the back of the building, where he opened fire. Roberts returned the shots, hitting Brewer in the eye and killing him instantly.
Demoralized by the lone gunman, the rest of the Regulators got on their horses and left. Still armed, Roberts remained in the building until a few locals finally approached with a doctor waving a white flag. Though the doctor tended to his wound, there was little he could do, and Roberts suffered in agony for another 36 hours before he finally died. He and Dick Brewer were buried side by side at the small Blazer Cemetery in Mescalero, New Mexico.
Later, when Billy the Kid was asked about the gunfight, he responded: “yes sir, he licked our crowd to a finish.”
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2023.
The Fight Of Buckshot Roberts by Emerson Hough