Tombstone Silver

John Slaughter

John Slaughter was an old lawman who was said to always get his man -- alive or dead.

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It was February 18, 1922, and Ernest Baker had settled in among the boulders in the Dragoon Mountains, hiding from the law after he had robbed a traveler just outside Tombstone. He figured that he could wait there for a few hours and then head out toward Bisbee and spend the $10 he had managed to steal. However, he hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Texas John Slaughter.

Slaughter had been the sheriff of Cochise County many years earlier but had since retired to cattle ranching near Douglas. Even though he had not been the sheriff for some time, his legend was still discussed by petty thieves like Ernest. Slaughter was said to always bring in his man, alive or dead, and no one got away.

While Ernest was waiting there in the Dragoon Mountains, he spotted a lone rider headed slowly toward him. He watched that rider for more than an hour as he ambled across the desert, stopping from time-to-time to look at the tracks in the dirt. He was, though, unmistakably headed straight toward Ernest. As the rider got closer, Ernest could make out a distinctive white Van Dyke, a hat with a wide, flat brim, and a silken vest under a canvas long coat. He realized that it was Texas John Slaughter and wondered what the old man was doing out that way.

Slaughter finally got to the base of the Dragoon Mountains immediately under Ernest’s location, where he stopped and dismounted. By now, there wasn’t more than about 100 yards between them. Ernest didn’t want any sort of gunfight with Slaughter, but he wasn’t going to be taken back to Tombstone by that civilian, either. Slaughter, though, did something surprising; he sat in the shade of a small mesquite tree, leaned against the trunk of that tree, and just waited, staring out into the desert. Ernest wasn’t sure what Slaughter was up to, but he knew that he was trapped and couldn’t get away.

Ernest thought about his options for a long time. He considered shooting it out with Slaughter, but even as old as Slaughter was Ernest didn’t figure that he had much hope of coming out ahead in that type of fight. He thought about trying to climb up over the Dragoons and escaping, but the cliff face behind him was more than 40 feet high and he knew that even if he could make it up those rocks somehow he would leave his horse behind and that would be his death in the desert. He thought about just giving up, but he didn’t want to spend the next 10 years in the Yuma prison for a measly $10 crime. Ernest was truly perplexed as he thought through his options.

In the meantime, Slaughter simply sat under that tree, not moving, not drinking, not trying to talk to Ernest. In fact, at one point Ernest thought that Slaughter had died sitting under that tree, but then he swatted at a small bug flying around his head.

After a few hours, Ernest decided that he had been bested and decided to give himself up. He called down to Texas John and told him that he was coming down peaceful-like, not to shoot him. Slaughter stood up, stretched, and watched Ernest climb down out of those rocks. Ernest grabbed the reigns on his horse that was hidden behind a large boulder and led the horse out toward Slaughter. Ernest had one fleeting thought about swinging up onto his horse and making a run for it, but he figured that Slaughter's bullets could travel faster than his horse, so he quietly gave up on that notion.

Texas John said not a word, but simply pointed toward Tombstone about 20 miles off to the south. Ernest understood, mounted his horse, and began to ride toward Tombstone with Slaughter following close behind. Though no words were spoken, Ernest could hear Slaughter’s horse plodding along on the desert floor and occasionally nickering softly behind him.

Several times, Ernest tried to get a conversation started with Slaughter just to pass the time, but Slaughter had a reputation for being a man of few words and he didn't seem to be in the mood to chat with Ernest.

"I was surprised to see you out this way. I thought you had retired or something." Ernest paused, but Slaughter did not respond. "I mean, you quit law-n' more than ten years ago, didn't you?" No respose. "I just don't understand why a man would go back to a dangerous job like that when he should be takin' it easy, that's all I'm sayin'." Still, Slaughter said nothing.

Ernest decided to try a different approach and said, "I'm right sorry 'bout robbing that man. I only got $10 from 'im. It weren't hardly worth my trouble. In fact, I still got all that money, and a little more, beside. What if'n I give all of that to you so's you can give it back to that poor man. Would that make this better, you reckon?" To his credit, Ernest wasn't trying to bribe Slaughter, he was smart enough to know that wouldn't work; he just hoped that making restitution would somehow make the crime go away. "Well, dang-it, Slaughter, you just goin' to sit there all the way in to Tombstone?" When the only answer was the soft whinny of a horse, Ernest decided to just give up trying to get Texas John to talk.

I suppose that the next thing Ernest done, though, could have made Texas John just shoot him on the spot -- he started singing. Unfortunately, he wasn't very good; in fact, he couldn't carry a tune in a gunny sack, but still he sung -- loud. He was making up the tune and the words as he went along. At first he sung about things like the weather and the stars at night, then he got onto dance hall girls and poker games; finally, he got to singing about his own family. I'm not sure if he was hoping that Slaughter would tell him to stop just so he could hear another man's voice, but if that was his plan it didn't work. After about an hour of all that noise coming from Ernest Baker, he fell silent and spent the rest of the journey listing to the sound of the wind and the quiet plodding of the horses' hooves on the desert floor.

When they got just a few miles from Tombstone, Sheriff Hood rode out to meet them. As he approached, Ernest said "I didn’t know that Texas John Slaughter was still doing work for you, but he found me." As he said that, Ernest pumped his thumb over his shoulder to point at Slaughter. The sheriff gave him a long, tired look and replied, "I don’t know what you are talking about, Texas John Slaughter died in his bed in Douglas two days ago." Ernest's jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide. He turned around in his saddle and looked behind himself to a flat desert floor uninterrupted by anything taller than a prickly pear cactus and occasional mesquite tree, all the way back to the Dragoon mountains nearly 20 miles distant.