Shoot-out in Lincoln County
The murder of Sheriff William Brady in broad daylight in the street at Lincoln on April 1, 1878 escalated the so-called Lincoln County War no end. The band of gunmen that called themselves the Regulators, who carried out the assassination, including William Bonney, arrived at the small settlement of Blazer’s Mills, about 50 miles south west of Lincoln, on August 4. It isn’t quite sure what they were doing there but it was rumored that they were after the district judge and his officials. If they did not scruple to cut down a county sheriff in the exercise of his duties, they would not hesitate to wreak their wrath on the equally pro-House Justice Bristol. But the posse didn’t get that far. They got into a gunfight at the Mills with Buckshot Roberts.
This episode of frontier legend rarely appears in Billy the Kid movies, though Buckshot was a late role of Brian Keith in Young Guns. The Regulators thought, probably wrongly, that Roberts was part of the House posse that killed John Tunstall. In fact he was only an occasional, and unwilling, employee of the House, and he had sold out and was leaving that very day. He only went to Blazer’s Mills to get the check from the purchaser of his place which was coming in with the mail. In the movie he was after Billy Bonney for the reward, but that wasn’t the case. Roberts had been a Texas Ranger, a sergeant in the Civil War and was said to have hunted bison with Buffalo Bill. At any rate he was a tough customer.
One of the Regulators, Billy’s friend Frank Coe, tried to persuade Buckshot to surrender. He wouldn’t – there had been too many cases of captives ‘killed trying to escape’. Regulator boss Dick Brewer grew impatient and shooting broke out. Charlie Bowdre hit Buckshot in the stomach with a rifle bullet. He was mortally wounded but didn’t give up. He shot Bowdre in the belt buckle, knocking him down, and also hit another Regulator, John Middleton, in the chest. He also hit George Coe in the hand and grazed Doc Scurlock. When Buckshot’s Winchester was empty, Bonney, with typical recklessness, charged him, but Buckshot hit him with the empty rifle and the boy fell back. Buckshot then barricaded himself inside.
There he found an old Spencer rifle and ammunition. When Dick Brewer opened fire from behind some logs, Buckshot sighted carefully on the gunsmoke, waited till Brewer’s head appeared, then shot him dead. The Regulators retreated. Buckshot died of his wound the next day.
But this gunfight was just a prelude of what was to come.
Back in Lincoln, things had started to go better for the McSween faction. Judge Bristol got through and presided over the trial of McSween but the jury obstinately ignored his instructions and acquitted McSween. James Dolan, boss of the House, found that he was now bankrupt. His chief henchman, the outlaw Jesse Evans, had been badly wounded in the wrist while trying to rob a sheep camp, had gone to Fort Stanton for medical treatment and was there arrested and locked up. As if that weren’t enough bad news for the House, the new sheriff, replacing the murdered Brady, was clearly pro-McSween. John Copeland held warrants for principal McSween party members, Regulators, in other words, but chose not to serve them. Instead, he caroused with them at the McSween house. The Regulators chose Frank McNab, a very tough cookie, to replace the dead Brewer, and he wangled a commission as deputy constable from the JP of the nearby hamlet of San Patricio. The pendulum appeared to have swung.
The Regulators fanned out in the town and firing erupted. But now the military intervened. Lt George W Smith from Fort Stanton, with twenty ‘buffalo soldiers’ arrived and ordered all parties to cease firing.
Billy Bonney did not stand out among the defenders in Lincoln. Along with Middleton, Bowdre and others, he left town and hung around San Patricio, ten miles or so to the south, while the McSween/Dolan legal wrangling resumed.
Lt Smith’s superior, Colonel Dudley, was another firmly aligned with the House. He was not supposed to intervene in civilian affairs but he applied to yet another authority, the JP at Blazer’s Mills, for a warrant against McSween and his partisans, for “riot”, and ordered Sheriff Copeland to serve it. Billy Bonney’s name was included.
The Regulators now elected yet another captain, and it was Doc Scurlock. As one of Copeland’s deputy sheriffs, he took his men, including Bonney, rode down to Seven Rivers, about sixty miles south of Roswell, and attacked the Dolan cow camp there. They scattered the cattle, took horses and mules and captured the camp cook, who turned out to be the one who had killed McNab at Fritz ranch. Unsurprisingly, he too ‘died while trying to escape.’
Unfortunately for the McSweenites, though, Dolan’s property had now passed, through bankruptcy, into the hands of Santa Fe potentate Thomas B Catron, the Attorney General. He was livid and he had Governor Axtell’s ear. Dolan was there too, and was writing to the press. Doc and his men had shoved a stick into a hornet’s nest. On May 28, the governor fired Sheriff Copeland and appointed George Peppin to replace him. The county sheriff was once more a House man.
Peppin, armed now with a federal warrant, led a formidable force into Lincoln, and the Regulators, including Bonney, melted away. A posse sent out by Peppin to hunt them down, bolstered with a dozen of Jesse Evans’s “gangsters”, as Colonel Dudley disgustedly called them, tracked the Regulators down at San Patricio and a gunfight ensued but Billy and his friends knew the terrain intimately and slipped away, losing themselves in the Capitan foothills. The Peppin posse returned empty-handed.
The Regulators spent the Fourth at Chisum’s ranch. Chisum was not there but his pretty sixteen-year-old niece Sallie was and she and Billy hit it off. Of course movies loved this part, for example when Geoffrey Deuel’s Billy canoodles with Pamela McMyler’s Sallie in John Wayne’s Chisum. Seven Rivers men found them there and some shooting occurred but the attackers were outnumbered and by the time reinforcements from Lincoln arrived Billy and his friends were long gone.
But the climax to the conflict was coming. Tune in, same blog, same time tomorrow, for the next thrilling episode!