West Texas, September, 1892
There was not much to see, yet, but I expected to come to a town reasonably soon. Since I had left Hanksville, Texas, two days ago, I had seen no sign of people. I had not realized that country could be this empty. I had been told that I would find a town after about three days if I stayed on this road, but I wondered if that was really true. I could not see very far, right now, because of the hills to all sides. The road twisted back and forth, winding among the hills like a snake with too much to drink. I didn't want to push my horse too fast, because I did not dare take a chance of killing it. Killing my horse would have been a slow and particularly unpleasant suicide.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I rounded a blind curve in the road and came upon a heavily loaded wagon pulled by a team of six mules. A very grizzled driver was sitting in the front of the wagon and equally elderly woman was sitting beside him. She spotted me immediately (could she read minds?) and swung a shotgun in my general direction, but not right at me. The old man loudly said, "Now, ma, don't shoot the young fellow until we find out what he wants."
I slowly, but deliberately, raised my hands so that she could see that I was holding nothing in my hands but my reins. "Ma'am, sir, I mean no harm to anybody. I'm just riding west from Hanksville, and I have no idea how far it is to the next town, whatever it's called. Do you happen to know how far it might be?"
The old woman said. "It's called Best Chance, but I sure don't know why. It's about two miles as the buzzard flies, but about seven miles by this God forsaken road. That's where we're headed, but we're too loaded to take it fast."
"Ma'am, I feel like it's been so long since I saw a friendly face, I'd like to ride along with you for a ways, " I asked.
Then the man said, "You're welcome to ride along if you want. It' nice to hear a different voice for a change."
We continued on for about an hour, talking about this and that, when three men burst out of a side cut. The were wielding pistols and had their faces partially covered by crude masks. They had not come to a full stop when the woman fired her shotgun at the nearest rider. I immediately drew my gun and began to shoot at the other two. I hit one in the throat and the other in the gut. The one the woman had shot was about as dead as you can get with his chest showing nothing but chopped meat. The gut-shot one was as good as dead; he couldn't last more than a few minutes with that hole. His blood was flowing like a river. The throat shot had been immediately fatal.
The driver drawled, "Much obliged, Mat. It would have been a close one without you." He then showed that he was holding a Colt Navy, but he had not had a chance to use it.
"It was my pleasure to be of assistance. But what was that load in Mrs. Harrison's shotgun. I have never seen so much damage."
She said, "It's my own special load of horseshoe nails. The range is not great, but the charge is effective. I was aiming high to miss the horse. It's usually enough to slow a bandit down 'til Joel can get his pistol up."
I suggested, "Let's take them to town. There might be a reward. We can tie them on their horses and hitch the horses to the back of your wagon. Maybe we can split any reward."
They readily agreed, so that's what we did. Unfortunately, there was no formal law in Best Chance, so we got no reward. However, we did sell their horses and tack and their guns for enough to net us $40, each. The bodies were dumped in the local trash pit.
Best Chance did not appear to offer me much, so I bid my new friends goodbye and pushed on the next morning. What else was there to do, since the best accommodation I could find was a hay stack in back of the livery stable?
The next few days were pretty much a repeat of the last few, until I reached Hanging Tree. I can't say that I was any more impressed by the town than I was by its name. But it did have a large saloon with several working girls. I followed Ben Jackson's advice and hung around the bar just listening while nursing a particularly vile beer. Nothing sounded promising, so I grabbed the next available working girl, negotiated a price, and headed to her room. The room stank, she stank, and when she got her clothes off, I nearly threw up. Fortunately, I was still dressed, so I tipped my hat and got out as quickly as I could. She had her price, but I still thought I got out ahead!
Fortunately, Hanging Tree was on a busy railroad, so the next day I bought passage for my horse and me in a stock car headed for New Mexico Territory. I didn't know how far I was going, I just bought $2 worth of ticket. The agent assured me that was enough to get me into NMT. I tried to sleep as much as I could, but, as I have said before, there is only so much sleeping that you can do. I happened to be awake as we crossed the border into NMT, but I did not notice anything remarkable. Perhaps, it's just me.
At some point, the train stopped and the conductor informed me that my welcome had expired. My horse and I got off the train and we looked around. I don't know which one of us was more impressed. We were in the town of Willow; I know because I saw the sign on the station. I looked around some more and spotted a willow tree beside the town well. Ah, that mystery was resolved. At least one good thing: we could both get a drink of fresh water. After refreshing ourselves, I, for one, began to feel better.
I spotted a restaurant down the street from the station, so I went over to have breakfast. To get there, I had to pass a general store, a hotel, a bank and four saloons. A busy town! I had a surprisingly good breakfast; I was even amazed to find grits, something I had not seen since leaving East Texas. Needless to say, I loaded up on grits and fried eggs, with all of the bacon and biscuits I could hold. Almost like being home! My opinion of Willow, NMT, went way, way up. In fact, I ate so much, I had to have two extra cups of coffee to pack it all down.
When I paid my bill, I noted to my dismay that I was nearly out of small denomination coins. I needed to pay a visit to the bank. Without attracting undue attention, I slipped a $100 gold piece from my money belt and stashed it in my pocket; I would break it at the local bank. I casually stood up and strolled to the bank.
The bank appeared to be remarkably busy; I had to wait in line for a teller. While I was standing there, I heard a commotion by the door. Four men came pushing their way in. They were all wearing dusters and masks, carrying saddle bags, and brandishing guns. Since I happened to be carrying all of my worldly possessions in my money belt, I knew that I had better act if I expected to keep it. I drew my side arm and fell to the floor. I then opened fire, first on the bandit wielding the shotgun. My .44-40 blew his head into little pieces, so he was of no further concern. The massive report of my shot caused some shock to all who heard it in that crowded room. That gave me a slight additional advantage which I quickly made use of. As fast as I could operate my single-action pistol, I shot the other three bandits. Two in the head, one in the hip. They were all three incapacitated, since being hit at close range by a .44-40 tends to make you lose interest in much else. I yelled, "Somebody get the sheriff!" I then reloaded and holstered my gun. All of us were coughing from the powder smoke when the sheriff showed up.
"What happened?" he demanded.
A lot of people started talking at once and pointed at me. The gist was that I had foiled a bank robbery by shooting the bandits before they could shoot anybody. The bank president came up and pounded me on the back and somebody wanted to take my picture for the local newspaper. No photo of me; that handbill circulating with the $500 reward for my head was still too fresh in my memory. The sheriff wanted me to come by his office, so I did.
In his office, the sheriff wanted the story of my foiling of the robbery from me. I told him my version of what happened and he wrote a report, I don't know for whom. I then asked if there was any reward for killing the bandits and he promised to look into it for me. I told him my adventures in Hanksville, Texas, and asked if he knew of any action around here that I might use to my advantage. Again, he said that he did not know of anything, off hand, but he would see what he could find. I thanked him and went back to the bank to break my $100 coin.
The bank president was glad to see me and break my coin, but he was not so free with any sort of reward. My thought was that he was lucky that I had been carrying all that gold; otherwise, the bandits might have cleaned him out. Some people talk a good game, but can't come through when it means something. Anyway, I left in disgust.
By now, it was getting late, so I got a hotel room and stabled my horse. I was directed back to the same restaurant that had the grits; the supper was as good as the breakfast, so there were some decent folks in Willow, NMT.
I decided that I could take the time to visit some saloons to fish for information. I was glad I did, since several men bought me drinks in celebration of that day's events. I did hear a rumor of Four Finger Jack Sloan being in the neighborhood, but not much hard fact. The story was that Four Finger Jack was a bank robber who had lost a finger while trying to blow a bank safe. The stories of a reward ranged from $500 to $5000; with such a span, I had my doubts. Oh, well, it did make a good story.
The next day, the sheriff told me that I was out of luck with the bank robbers. It seems that they were four not-too-bright brothers who lived on a farm a few miles out of town and not worth anything to anybody. However, if I was serious about being a bounty hunter, he did have one lead. He showed me a poster for Johnathon Slinger who was a wanted bank robber. There was a $2000 reward for him, alive. He had been seen last week passing through the next town to the south, about twelve miles away, but in a different county, so the sheriff couldn't officially do any thing about it. The sheriff gave me an extra copy of the wanted poster and I hurried out of his office. I'll always have a fond memory of Willow, NMT, as the first place I got decent grits since I left home.
I picked up my horse and checked out of the hotel. I stopped by the restaurant to pick up some emergency rations for the trail, and then I headed south. When I reached town, I checked by several saloons. I found out that Slinger had left town three days ago, headed toward Mexico. I stopped by a general store and stocked up on supplies, including extra canteens.
I headed out toward Mexico at a fast trot, hoping that Slinger did not expect to be followed, so would not try to make good time on his trip. I stopped at a stagecoach relay station for a meal and found that Slinger had been through there only the day before. I wondered why he had taken so long to get that far, but didn't worry about it. As it began to get dark, I came up to a water hole that appeared to be a popular camping spot for travelers caught between towns. I spent the night there and got an early start the next morning.
Toward midday, I spotted a rider leading two pack mules. I didn't think anything odd about the sight; I just kept riding on. When I got closer, I recognized Slinger as the rider. I could see that the mules were carrying rifle cases. Was Slinger planning to smuggle rifles into Mexico? I decided that the best way to handle this was to ambush Slinger, so I swung away from the road in order to pass him. I had no trouble doing that and got about a mile ahead where there was a good spot for an ambush.
I tied my horse back in the bushes and hid at the edge of the road. When Slinger reached my location, I jumped out at his right hand side (he was right handed) with my gun drawn. "Stop. If you move, I will plug you where it will hurt like hell, but not kill you." He was so surprised that he did not react, but did stop.
I had him dismount and I tied his hands behind his back. He tried to convince me that he was not Slinger, but I showed him the poster with his picture. He then admitted that he was Slinger, but said that if I would help him to smuggle the rifles into Mexico, he would split with me. I did turn him down, but I was curious to see the rifles. I opened a box and found that the rifles it contained were worn out junk and not worth anything. I checked the other cases and found the same thing. Not only was Slinger a crook, he was a cheating crook! I put Slinger back on his horse and led him and his pack train back to my horse. I was so disgusted with the Slinger's con that I led the pack train to a deep gully and dumped the junk rifles into it. I then led Slinger and the unloaded mules back to the road.
To collect my reward, I had to deliver Slinger to a particular jurisdiction about forty miles away. We started out in that direction. The first town we came to, I sold the mules and pocketed the money. I got $50 apiece for the mules, so I was already ahead of the game. With all of the fooling around and aggravation, it took 4 days to get Slinger delivered, but I was finally able to collect my biggest reward, yet. I was tempted to throw a big party to celebrate, but then better sense kicked in. I just had a couple of drinks and went to bed. If I wanted to, I could easily live on $500 a year, so I was in pretty good shape for a while.
I got a flash of good sense while I was at the courthouse. I picked up a supply of all of the current wanted posters. It was the practice to send from all over NMT copies of all the wanted posters to each courthouse. As a result, I had all I needed to cover the territory. Furthermore, every time I visited a courthouse, I could pick up any recent posters and find out which of the posters I had were no longer valid. All in all, I thought that this was a good plan which would save me a deal of bother.
While in town, I dropped by the gun shop to see what was new. I got a pleasant surprise when I found .44-40 ammunition in smokeless power. I immediately resolved to switch over, so I bought several boxes. I thought that I would keep using the black powder cartridges in my pistols until I had used them up, because any situation requiring my pistols would only arise when the enemy already knew my location. However, the use of one of my rifles would be from much longer range, and it would often be to my advantage to remain hidden from my target. I had about ninety rounds of the black power cartridges, so I should have used them in a few months. With that happy thought, I stopped in a saloon for a drink and some information.
It was still early in the afternoon, so the saloon wasn't crowded. The nonstop poker game was in session over in the corner, so I wandered over. There were only three players, so I asked what were the rules and if I could join in. Since the rules were limited to table stakes, I decided to join in.
I sat down with my back to the wall and anted up. The play was desultory and we drifted more toward conversation and less toward poker. I found out that there was a fort near by and there had been a few Indian forays, nothing much, but there had been some fatalities. There was nothing within my professional interest, so I quit playing in time for supper. After supper I visited a couple of other saloons and poker games, but I didn't hear anything of interest, so I went to bed.
I lazed around town for a few days, but finally got bored and decided to move on. With no particular goal in mind, I headed north. I had been on the road for a day, with nothing but more boredom.
My attention woke up to the sound of gunfire in the distance. I sped up to to a fast trot, but I didn't want to blunder into a firefight before I knew what was going on. It wasn't long before I spied what looked like an army patrol under attack by a large number of bandits. Later, I was told that this was two squads of dragoons (mounted infantry) guarding a payroll wagon. I saw about twenty soldiers under attack by thirty to thirty-five bandits.
The troops were led by someone who knew his business. The soldiers were fighting in groups of three; dug-in and putting up a steady defensive fire from their Sharps .45-70 rifles These were single shot weapons firing black powder. The black powder was an advantage to the troops, since they quickly had their own self-generated smoke screen. A slight breeze kept the smoke from becoming a problem to the soldiers.
The attackers were not so well disciplined, but were still doing a good job of pouring in a steady fire from their lever-action saddle carbines. They were also using black powder, so there was no problem picking out their locations. The bandits were all on one side of the road, probably in an effort to keep down hits by friendly fire. This was also good strategy, since the attackers did not want to kill the soldiers, just drive them off. The empty ground to their rear formed an escape route for the army, if the bandits could manage this.
I scanned the scene and decided that I could be the most help to the soldiers by attacking the bandits from the rear. I expected to be fairly successful, since I was using smokeless powder and would be harder to spot. At first, I debated fighting from my horse, but decided that would make it too easy to see me. I drew my rifle; the longer barrel made for greater accuracy. I crouched behind a large boulder about seventy yards from the bandits. Even at this distance, I knew that a wound from my .44-40 would be enough to put the target out of action.
I thought that all the noise and confusion would make it harder to spot me if I selected random targets instead of working on one group of bandits before moving on to the next. I chose my target from near the center of the firing line. I missed with my first shot; I must have misread the wind. I didn't miss with my next shot. I then selected a target to the right and dropped him. The next target was to the left, but I missed, again. However, his reaction showed that my bullet must have hit the rock near his head and rock chips flew up and hit him in the face; for whatever reason, he was out of the fight for a while. I continued to snipe at the bandits and my shots, combined with the fire from the soldiers, finally discouraged the bandits enough that they mounted up and tried to escape.
By this time, I was so excited that I ran to my horse, jumped on, and started chasing the bandits. I had drawn a pistol and shot at the bandits while I rode; of course, I never hit anything. Fortunately, I quickly realized the stupidity of one against twenty and turned back toward the ambush site. The soldiers saw me coming and stood and cheered and laughed.
None of the soldiers had been killed, and there were only five lightly wounded. The bandits had been careful not to shoot near the mules pulling the wagon, since the mules were needed to move the wagon. The sergeant in charge wisely let the celebration wind down before giving his next orders. They cleaned up the battlefield and mounted to continue their journey. I was invited to stop by whenever I was in the neighborhood. I agreed and we parted to travel in opposite directions.
I picked up a couple of the bandit's abandoned horses for later sale, since that was the only monetary reward that I expected. This little adventure was good in another way: it reminded me that I could be ambushed at any time and that I must be alert whenever I was on the trail.