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John Slaughter

Slaughter Ranch
Ranch buildings at San Bernardino Ranch, in the San Pedro River Valley of Arizona. John Slaughter built them in the 1880's and 1890's.

One of the toughest lawmen the West ever saw, however, spent most of his youth trailing cattle. He was John Slaughter and looked more like a boy playing sheriff than a dangerous lawman, for he was a little fat man with a baby face, despite a mustache and Vandyke beard he wore to make himself look older.

He was born in 1841 on the Lousiana side of the Texas border, to his everlasting chagrin. His father and mother could not read or write but were highly respected, for shortly after moving to Texas his father fought as a Texas Ranger in the Mexican War and later as a Ranger against Indian raiders. After a drouth ruined his corn crop, the elder Slaughter gave up farming and turned to cattle ranching. The Slaughters were among the first Texans to import shorthorn bulls for improving the longhorn breed.

In the early 1870s John Slaughter joined half of Texas in rounding up unbranded mavericks and driving them to Kansas. While he was gone on business, his wife and a single black servant, armed with shotguns, held off a band of Comanches through a long night.

A Mexican cheated Slaughter's partner in a cattle deal and Slaughter trailed him across several northern Mexican states to shoot him down. Slaughter was suspected of other gun scrapes, and a posse of vigilantes from San Antonio called at his house. They possibly had the idea of hanging him without trial, for they had long since gone far beyond any reasonable enforcement of order and were hanging right and left on mere whim. It was a good thing for everybody all around that Slaughter was not home, for his later history proves he would not have submitted quietly to hanging. By the late 1870s, Slaughter felt that Texas was too crowded. Besides, he suffered from asthma and tuberculosis, so he drove a herd across New Mexico headed for Arizona, a territory with a climate reputed good for weak chests.

A band of notorious rustlers headed by a Barney Gallagher rode up to one of Slaughter's trail hands. Gallagher had some kind of grudge against Slaughter, possibly growing out of a card game in San Antonio. He ordered the cowboy to carry a challenge to his boss. "Tell that little rathead up front I'm here to kill him."

He propped a sawed-off shotgun across his saddle and waited for Slaughter to come into range. He waited longer than he might have, for he could see that Slaughter was not wearing a pistol, and so Gallagher let him trot close enough for a sure kill with the short-range shotgun. But Slaughter always carried a shotgun, a rifle, and a six-shooter in holsters on his saddle. He whipped out the six-shooter and drilled Gallagher through the heart. The rustler band fled.

Governor Lew Wallace of New Mexico, who was then busy writing the famous novel Ben Hur, took time out from his scribbling to order Slaughter arrested for murder. Perhaps somebody pointed out to the governor that Slaughter was in New Mexico on a peaceable errand, driving his cattle, and Gallagher had no good excuse for being on the same ground issuing threats and challenges. Besides, a sawed-off shotgun is hardly a tool of peaceful commerce. So the governor dropped the murder charge but arrested Slaughter anyhow on the grounds that his trail herd included many cattle with strange brands. It is entirely possible that Slaughter, like many other trail bosses, was careless about sweeping up strange cattle along the way, for even his brother-in-law accused him of stealing several hundred head of cattle. The governor felt so strongly about Slaughter that on his list of wanted criminals Slaughter's name was first and Billy the Kid was fourteenth.

Among the detectives who inspected Slaughter's herd after he was arrested was Charley Siringo. Somehow during the inspection, 500 cattle disappeared. Newspapers openly accused the authorities, including the governor, of arresting Slaughter only so they could steal his cattle. Siringo followed Slaughter to Arizona, but gave up the plan of going over his herd looking for Texas brands when he discovered the little man, tough enough all by himself, had hired a pack of very mean hombres as his work force.

Slaughter bought a 65,000-acre ranch, partly in Arizona but mostly in Mexico. To stock it, he rode into Mexico on a cattle-buying trip. A Mexican cattle seller pointed out to Slaughter that a band of heavily armed vaqueros was ready to jump him if he did not dump the silver money from his pack mule. Slaughter whipped out his shotgun, held it to the hidalgo's head and rode to safety with the nervous Mexican as a hostage.

Slaughter's ranch lay on the route Geronimo and his warriors took to Mexico, so his ranch buildings had loopholes for rifles and shotguns. He and his cowboys fought battles with the Indians to recover stolen horses. While he was a scout, Tom Horn operated part of the time from Slaughter's house. Geronimo surrendered on the Slaughter place.

Nearby Tombstone came into existence as a town in 1879, after the discovery of silver. From the beginning, lawmen in the town did not like cowboys. Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and their henchman Doc Holliday brought the town worldwide notoriety as a nest of frontier violence with their famous shootout with cowboys at the OK Corral. After the Earps and Holliday drifted on to other towns, John Slaughter was elected the third sheriff of Cochise County in 1887.

On June 7, 1888, he set the pattern for his administration by killing three Mexican rustlers at dawn with a breech-loading shotgun. A grim western joke had it that the tender-hearted Slaughter tried to kill outlaws in their sleep to spare their feelings.

He kept the jail crowded, but it would have been jammed had he not so often ridden back to town from a manhunt with a body across his saddle or merely with the fugitive's personal gear and weapons. It was a common report that John Slaughter, on the trail of horse thieves, always brought back the horses, but rarely the thieves.

Learning that a notorious thief named Eduardo Moreno was camped on the west side of the Huachuca Mountains, the sheriff took his deputy Burt Alvord across the ridge and jumped the three-man gang. The law men killed all the bandits. As usual, Slaughter never explained why the killing was necessary. Alvord later confessed he himself kept $500 he had found on the leader's body. (Alvord later went bad and was suspected of robbing a train while he was town constable.)

Slaughter captured five bank robbers at Willcox. The chief broke loose and fled on horseback, but Slaughter rode him down and returned him to his gang. Entering a saloon, Slaughter was surprised by a gunman who whipped out his pistol. Darting out his hand, Slaughter got his thumb under the falling hammer, pulled his own weapon and subdued the would-be murderer.

Hoping to lure Slaughter into a trap, train robbers sent a false message that his nephew had been killed at Willcox. Smelling treachery, Slaughter looked up his nephew, found him alive, and boarded the stagecoach for Willcox with a deputy, the two of them loaded for bear. When the stagecoach stopped, they leaped out on opposite sides with cocked shotguns ready for battle. The robbers fled.

Over many years, Slaughter fought a long duel of wits and courage with a famed Mexican outlaw called Augustin Chacon. The Mexican strutted about Tombstone bragging that he would kill Slaughter on sight. The sheriff gave his deputy Alvord a shotgun and crept up on the tent where an informant had told him Chacon was sleeping. Posting Alvord at the front entrance, Slaughter called on Chacon to come out. As Slaughter expected, he plunged out the rear. The sheriff fired, but the bandit tripped on a guy rope, and the charge went over his head. He escaped into Mexico while Slaughter cursed one of his few failures with a shotgun.

On Christmas Eve of 1895, the Chacon gang held up a general store. The manager foolishly refused to open the safe and was duly killed. The sheriff's posse traced the bandits to Morenci where they were holed up in an adobe house, which makes a fine fortress. In the first exchange of fire, two bandits were killed. A Mexican named Pablo Salcido tried to be a peacemaker and was wantonly shot down by Chacon. During the following fracas, Chacon escaped, but was tracked down and jailed. Just ten days before he was to hang, he escaped again and wandered northern Mexico for five years.

Augustin Chacon

The end of the Chacon adventure came only after Slaughter gave up the sheriff's badge. Alvord tried his hand at banditry. With another ex-lawman named Billy Stiles, he went to Mexico and joined Chacon. Alvord betrayed his boss to Captain Burton C. Mossman, founder of the Arizona Rangers, who arrested Chacon on the Mexican side of the border, brought him back to Arizona, and saw him hanged in 1902.

Another grudge match with a Mexican bandit began when Sheriff Slaughter sent Deputy Cesario Lucero after Geronimo Baltierrez, who had held up a Wells Fargo pack train of gold. Baltierrez surprised Lucero while the deputy was bent over a spring washing his face. He killed the lawman and fled. Slaughter traced him to Fairbank where he was sleeping in a tent, like Chacon at the previous encounter. The sheriff posted a deputy at each end of the tent and stood to one side, determined not to miss his man the second time. When ordered to come out, Baltierrez cut a slit in the side of the tent and sprinted for the shelter of a fence. Slaughter cut him in two with the shotgun. One of the deputies, new to the job, was so sickened he turned in his badge on the spot. (The same man, incidentally, was later accused of overcoming his sensitivity so successfully that he shot his employer and fled to Oklahoma.)

Slaughter worked out a deal with the famed Col. Emilio Kosterlitzky, colonel of the Mexican Rurales, to exchange prisoners across the border, so that thieves could not use the international frontier as a shield. Retirement as sheriff in 1898 did not end Slaughter's career as a lawman. He became a deputy U. S. Marshal.

Spotting a peg-legged stranger crossing his property at a distance from the ranch headquarters, Slaughter became suspicious of any traveler who avoided his wife's famed hospitality and good cooking. He used the newfangled instrument called a telephone to check with the customs house at Bisbee, Arizona. They told him the stranger was probably Pegleg Finney, wanted for horse stealing.

The exhausted Finney had stretched out to sleep in the shade of a tree with a six-shooter in his hand hidden under his right side. With two assistants, Slaughter stole up on the sleeping man, kicked away his rifle, and ordered him to his feet. Finney swung up the hidden revolver and Slaughter put a huge .45-85 rifle bullet through his gun hand and into his chest. The other two also fired. Any of the three shots would have been enough to kill the horse thief.

Chasing an Indian desperado named the Apache Kid (the desperado who had killed Tom Horn's boss while he was at the rodeo), Slaughter and another tracker took up his trail into the Sierra Madre. At dawn, the two built a brush fire to attract attention, then crept 200 yards away to wait. They saw the Apache Kid sneak up on the fire, hoping to take his pursuers by surprise.

In the bad light of dawn, Slaughter's first shot only wounded the fugitive. The trio began a daylong game of cat and mouse, creeping about and exchanging shots till a long period of silence persuaded Slaughter that the Indian was dead. They found his body pierced by four bullets. As often happened in the old West, the legend sprang up that it was not really the Apache Kid who had died. For years afterward the Apache Kid was killed in a half-dozen different scrapes by a half-dozen different lawmen or posses.

One gambler who held up a roulette game in Tombstone virtually committed suicide by riding up to Slaughter's front door. Nobody ever understood the purpose of such a stupid maneuver unless he just wanted to get the whole thing over quickly.

Slaughter killed his last man as part of a posse chasing an eighteenyear-old boy who had killed a mother and her son and daughter in a robbery. Bad health finally forced him to slow down, though he remained a deputy sheriff, mostly an honorary title, till his death in 1922 at the age of eighty-one.

Bern Keating. Famous American Cowboys The Cowboy as Lawman. Rand McNally & Company, New York, 1977.

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