The Shooting up of Horse Head

by Will C. Barnes

The town of Horse Head had turned over a new leaf. There was to be no more "shooting up" of the village. Patience ceased to be a virtue when the "Cross J" outfit shipped their last train of steers, and everybody in the gang came into town for a big time, which culminated in a general "shooting up" of the place.

The lights in all the saloons were bored full of holes, the solitary street lamp-post, standing in front of the "Apache House"—and the pride of the heart of the old woman who kept the place—was riddled over and over again, and every woman in town scared into a fit of hysterics. Then the town people rose up in their wrath and called on the marshal to put a stop to it, or resign his office.

Now Jenkins, the marshal, who held the position by virtue of his ability to shoot quick and true, was something of a diplomat. He was not anxious to have a row with any of the boys, if it could be avoided, and he was still further anxious not to lose the confidence of the townspeople, a nominating convention being due before long. Jenkins was a candidate for sheriff on the Democratic ticket, and in Colorado County, a nomination on that ticket was equivalent to an election. Accordingly, being of a diplomatic turn of mind, as aforesaid, he decided that a little scheming on his part might work to his advantage. To this end, he rode down to the little cottonwood "bosque" a few miles below town, where the Cross J outfit was camped, busily engaged in shoeing horses for another trip into the mountains, and overhauling the wagon generally.

The result of his visit was that he was authorized by the guilty "punchers" to enter into negotiations with the town justice, and make some sort of terms with him, based upon their pleading guilty and promising good behavior for the future. All this Jenkins successfully accomplished, and about three o'clock the next afternoon the wily marshal rode into town accompanied by eight or ten of the boys.

Being arraigned before the town barber, who upheld the dignity of the law as justice of the peace, they gravely plead guilty to disturbing the peace and dignity of the place, were fined one dollar and costs each, which they promptly paid, with many promises of future good conduct.

But alas for such promises! "Cow punchers is pore weak critters, shore," old Dad, the cook, used to say; and before sunset that day every last one of them, unmindful of promises or pledges, was again full of enthusiasm and cheap whiskey.

"Tex," the bartender at the "Bucket of Blood," had all their six-shooters behind the bar, and for safety had slyly removed all the cartridges and inserted empty shells in their place.

About sunset the gang started for camp, their weaponsreturned to them with many warnings from Tex not to shoot until clear out of town. They mounted their ponies and struck out on a dead run down the main street, whooping and yelling like a bunch of coyotes, but carefully refraining from firing a shot. About half a mile below town, however, the white "Yard Limit" sign of the railroad company was too good a mark for the crowd to pass unchallenged. True, the heavy piece of boiler iron, some thirty inches across, was pierced in a hundred places from previous attacks, but a few more wouldn't hurt it, and Baldy Peters, the crack shot of the camp, drew his revolver and, spurring his pony into a dead run, took quick aim at the black spot in the center and pulled the trigger. No answering shot came, and, although he tried all five of the chambers (no true cowboy or frontiersman ever carries six cartridges in his revolver) they were all silent.

Baldy jerked his pony up on its haunches, and carefully examined the cylinder. Sure enough every shell was there, but empty. Jack Gibson, who had followed Baldy, had the same luck, and when the rest came up a general investigation followed. It did not take them long to see that they had been tricked by some one. Their indignation knew no bounds. "Jes to think," said Big Pete, "s'posin' one of us ud a got inter a row, and some blame town galoot had a drawed a gun on him, wouldn't he 'a' been in a fine ole fix to 'a' jerked his 'hog-leg,' and nary a bean in the wheel?"

The more they thought about it the madder they got. Revenge they must have. What its form, they scarcely knew, nor cared. Without more talk, they all reloaded the weapons from their well-filled belts and turned their horses' heads toward town, speculating as they rode along as to just what they would do to show the town of Horse Head the danger of monkeying with a cow puncher's weapons. As they rode, they hatched up a plan, suggested from the fertile brain of Mac, the horse-wrangler, which, they thought, if successfully carried out, would give them the requisite amount of satisfaction for their wounded dignity.

It was on Tex, the bartender, and Jenkins, the town marshal, that they poured out the vials of their wrath. Who else than they would have removed the cartridges from all those cylinders and replaced them with empty shells?

Now, they knew that Tex was the marshal's right-hand man when it came to any trouble, and that, during the shipping season, when the outfits were around town a good deal, each of them kept a horse in the corral back of the "Bucket of Blood," ready for any emergency. Arriving in town, they proceeded to get gloriously full again, while Tex and Jenkins, secure in the knowledge of those empty shells they had placed in their revolvers, enjoyed the fun and allowed them full play.

Along toward ten o'clock the boys drifted down to the only restaurant in Horse Head that kept open all night as well as all day. It was kept by "Chinese Louie," an almond-eyed celestial who ran a store, restaurant, wash-house, and the village photograph gallery, all under one long roof.

Now, when a puncher gets into a restaurant, the only thing he craves is ham and eggs. Of beef he has a surfeit. The menu of the round-up wagon is coffee, bread, and meat three times a day, with awful regularity. Therefore, the gang was soon busy, seated on high stools at the long counter. After they had eaten their fill each wadded up his paper napkin and fired it at the cook, lit a cigar from the case at the end of the counter, and paid his bill.

Then the fun opened by some one pulling a revolver and taking a shot at the big kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. In an instant twenty shots were fired; every lamp in the place was out and bored full of holes; the fancy water cooler that sat in the corner was riddled; and the coffee and tea pots on the big range behind the counter, as well as a lot more tempting marks in the way of copper cooking utensils that hung overhead on a rack, were turned into sieves.

Poor Chinese Louie and his assistant lost no time in making themselves scarce; and, after it got too dark, for want of lamp-light, to see to shoot anything more, the now hilarious punchers swaggered out to their ponies, standing quietly at the "snorting post" in front of the restaurant, and with a parting volley up the main street toward the "Bucket of Blood," rode furiously out of town.

Instead of going straight on down the railroad track they turned sharp to the left, at the first corner, and headed for the county bridge which spanned the river at Horse Head, a wooden structure with huge beams overhead, and some six or seven spans long.

Just as they turned the corner out of the main street a couple of shots whistled past the bunch, proving that Tex and the marshal were alive and in pursuit. This was what the boys wanted, and they gave shrill yells of defiance as they pounded through the heavy sand that covered the road to the bridge. They slowed down a little along here to give their pursuers a chance to catch up a little; and when the officers announced their coming, by more shots, some of which came rather close to the bunch of riders, they fired a few in reply, and thundered across the bridge at full speed, in spite of the warning sign that promised all sorts of fines and imprisonment for any one "riding across the bridge faster than a walk."

Along about the center span four of the boys, Baldy Peters, Jack Gibson, Dutch Henry, and Long Jim, dropped from their saddles, their ropes in their hands, and two on each side of the roadway, in the shelter of the huge beams, hastily made loops in their ropes, and awaited the coming of the two men. The rest of the gang clattered across the bridge with shrill whoops, and out on to the hard rocky road beyond, with the four loose horses following them, as if their riders were still on their backs.

Now, the four men on the bridge were the most skillful rope-tossers in all that range. Rope-tossers, instead of swinging the rope around their heads before throwing, spread it out behind and to one side of them, and with a quick, graceful throw, or toss, launch it with unerring aim over the head of the animal at which they throw. This method is used almost entirely in catching horses out of the "cavyyard," and also in catching calves out of a herd, as it is done so quietly and easily that the animal is snared before it has a chance to dodge or move.

Tex and the marshal were not quite so foolhardy or ignorant as to feel that they could capture and arrest the crowd they were after, but the marshal wanted that nomination in the fall, and felt it was a good chance to make a "rep" for himself. Tex was to be his chief deputy, if elected, so he was also eager to do something to prove his valor. Their idea, therefore, was to make a sort of grandstand play, follow the boys out a ways, fire a few shots after them at parting, and come back to town. Hearing them rattle across the bridge and out over the rocky road beyond, they feared no trap or ambush, and so kept riding in their wake, firing a shot every few seconds, as much to show the townspeople what they were up to, as anything else.

As they passed the spot where the four boys were awaiting them, four silent ropes settled down over the heads and shoulders of the luckless officers of the law. Going at full speed as they were, there was no chance to throw off those snakelike coils, and the two riders were jerked backward over their horses' hips and landed heavily upon the hard plank flooring of the bridge.

The marshal's six-shooter went off into the air as he wildly threw up his arms to clear his body of that python-like embrace, while the one Tex held in his hands flew off into space and dropped into the muddy waters below. Both men were stunned by the force of the fall, and lay as if dead on the bridge; but no sooner had they struck than they were promptly covered by the four men.

The avengers first took their small "hogging ropes" (a short piece of rope about six feet long, which every well regulated puncher carries, either in his saddle pocket, or around his waist, to be used in tying together the feet of any cow or steer he might have to tie down on the ranges), and secured their prisoners' wrists firmly behind their backs; then they took a lariat rope and wound it round and round the men's bodies from shoulders to heels, so that moving their feet or arms was an impossibility. To do this was not hard, for both men were stunned from their fearful fall, and lay like logs, while the boys worked on them.

The end of another lariat was passed through under their arms, around the body, and tied in a "bow-line hitch" behind the back. The two luckless officers were by this time regaining consciousness, and began to curse and struggle, but to no avail. At first they feared they were to be hung, and begged for their lives like good fellows; but as they were swung off the edge of the bridge and found how they were lashed with ropes, they pleaded even more fervently, for it looked as if the boys meant to drown them like rats in a cage. All to no avail. The boys never answered a word, but went ahead with their work, in the most matter-of-fact way imaginable. The ropes, tied as they were, suspended the men by the arms in such a way that they hung fairly upright, and without any particular pain or suffering from them.

Now, the water of the Puerco is about as vile-smelling and oleaginous stuff as any one ever saw, tasted, or smelled; indeed, the offensiveness of the water suggested the name of the river—"Nasty." Especially in time of floods does it deserve its name. The water then is more like thin gruel of a yellowish red color, and smells to Heaven. Into this mess the conspirators slowly lowered the two officers of the law, regardless of their prayers, entreaties, threats, or curses, of which each of the two men poured out a liberal supply in tones to wake the dead.

A turn of the rope about one of the bridge rods served to check the speed of their descent, and while Baldy Peters got over the railing and down on to the stone abutment, that he might the better see how far to lower the men, the rest held onto the ropes and let them down.

Baldy, crouching low on the abutment, peered down into the darkness and gave orders for the work, so that when the two ropes were tied to a rod, each man was swinging in the water breast deep. He clambered back onto the bridge, and the four punchers hastened out into the darkness after the rest of the gang, who were waiting for them not far off.

The next morning about daybreak, four horsemen rode out of the camp and headed for the New Mexico line, across which they felt themselves reasonably safe; for they well knew that the marshal would never follow and bring them back to relate in court the way they outwitted him and Tex. All they feared was that he would take a shot at them the first time he got sight of them, as he certainly would have done had he ever "met up with" either of the guilty four.

The boys were "drifters," anyhow, as much at home in one place as another, and good hands were always in demand on the ranches in those days, so it mattered little where they brought up.

As for the marshal and Tex, their first impression was that they were to be lynched; then they thought that they were to drown, which was even worse; finally, however, when they realized what the boys really meant to do, their rage knew no bounds. The marshal would almost have preferred to be hung, for he quickly foresaw that when they were rescued, the ridicule the affair would cause throughout the county would everlastingly kill his chances for any office. Had they been hung, or even drowned, they would have been heroes, even though dead ones; but this trick would turn a laugh against them as long as they lived.

Luckily for the two unfortunates, right below the place from which they were lowered, instead of the river running in its regular channel, there was a great eddy, or swirl, where the water had cut a deep hole in the sandy river bed. Here the water was quite deep and had but little movement, except a slow circling motion. In this they swung at anchor, from midnight until broad daylight. The water caused the ropes to shrink and draw until they suffered a great deal where they cut into their wrists, making it an utter impossibility for them to untie the knots, although they worked diligently trying to get them loose in some way. The water was cold and their limbs soon became so numb that they could hardly move either hands or legs. They wore their voices out calling for help.

The boys, in lowering them down, had been cunning enough to fasten them far enough apart so they could not aid each other to get loose, and while from the motion of the water they occasionally bumped against one another, they quickly drifted apart, as helpless as if in two strait-jackets.

About sunrise, a Mormon boy, belonging to a freighter outfit, which was camped over in town, going out after the horses which had been taken across the river the night before to graze, came whistling down the road to the bridge, and started to cross. As soon as his footfalls were heard on the flooring of the structure, the almost helpless men below roused and began to call as loudly as they were able with their numb lips and jaws chattering like castanets. It took him a minute or two to locate the voices.

The lad took one hasty look over the railing of the bridge, and, with a shriek of horror, fled toward town as fast as his feet could carry him. Here he told the first man he met that he had seen two bodies hanging to the bridge, and a crowd was soon on the way to the river, expecting to find the results of a vigilance committee suspended from the stringers.

The two men were quickly pulled up on to the bridge and the ropes that bound them like steel bands were cut from their bodies. Both men were so stiff that they had to be carried to town, and the doctor and several men worked over them for more than an hour trying to restore the circulation in their stiffened limbs and almost frozen bodies. The story of their capture set the whole town to laughing, and the more people laughed, the more ridiculous the happening grew. Nor did it lose anything in the telling and soon the entire county was also laughing over the misfortunes of the two peace officers. Jenkins' chief political opponent naturally made the most of it and under such conditions that gentleman was literally laughed into political obscurity.

About that time the Wells-Fargo Express Company feared a hold-up on the railroad, and Jenkins and Tex, glad to leave the scene of their water-cure adventure, secured positions as guards and soon dropped out of polite society in Horse Head as represented by the gang around the "Bucket of Blood" and its immediate vicinity.


 "They gave the money to Jackson, the Cross J wagon boss"

The next time they came to town the "Cross J" boys chipped in a dollar each and gave it to old "Dad," the cook, counted the luckiest "wheel" player in the bunch, who took the coin and with a burst of good luck soon ran it up to something over a hundred dollars at the roulette wheel. This entire amount he gave to Jackson the wagon boss, who went down to Chinese Louie's place, and poured it out on the counter before the heathen's astonished eyes, as a peace offering from the "shoot 'em up" crowd that had wrecked his place.

That night about midnight Louie and his assistant set out to the boys the very swellest "feed" his culinary abilities could prepare, and the affair of the shooting up of Horse Head and the putting of the marshal and his aid-de-camp to soak under the bridge in the cold nasty waters of the Rio Puerco was thus amicably settled over the viands that the Chinaman furnished.