Contrary to the plots of most Western movies, the average cowboy was not skilled at gunfighting.
Contrary to the plots of most Western movies, the average cowboy was not skilled at gunfighting. Simply put, cowboys made their living tending to cattle and performing the various labor-intensive jobs that go with running a ranching operation. Sure, they were good enough with guns--living on the frontier saw to that. Most of them had grown up using rifles and shotguns to collect game for the supper table, and a goodly number of them carried handguns. But when you're working cattle, handguns tend to get in the way.
Although most Old West cowboys weren't gunfighters, Clay Allison survived at least four shootouts. His firearm of choice was an ivory-handled Colt .45.
If a cowboy happened to be good with a gun, well, that didn't necessarily make him a gunfighter. Mindset, tactics, and a willingness to use a gun to settle a quarrel were a whole different set of characteristics than those of the average cowboy.
One exception to this natural order of things was a young man from Tennessee named Robert A. "Clay" Allison. Allison was born in 1840, near Waynesboro, Tennessee. He was still in his early 20s when he wandered over to Texas after the Civil War. He soon signed on to work as a cowboy for Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight, and he took part in the historic cattle drive that founded the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
By 1870, Allison had moved to New Mexico and founded a ranch of his own near Cimarron, in the northeast corner of the state. In addition to the hard work of founding a ranch on the frontier, Allison was plagued by health problems. He had been born with a clubfoot, and there were indications that he suffered from epilepsy.
Making these afflictions worse, Allison was a hard drinker. Whatever the effects of his physical problems might have been, Allison was known for being a hard worker and having a quick temper.
Allison was involved in at least four gunfights. The first was in 1862, while he was home on medical leave from the Confederate Army. Members of the Third Illinois Cavalry were in the area, looting and ransacking the Tennesseans' homes. When a soldier entered the Allison home and threatened his mother, Clay grabbed a revolver, shot and killed the man.
Allison's next recorded shooting was in New Mexico in 1874. He had been having trouble with members of the Colbert family. Following a local horse race, Allison and Chunk Colbert agreed to have supper. Towards the end of the meal, Colbert reached for the coffee pot with his left hand while he raised a revolver in his right hand. Allison had been ready for just such a move and had positioned his own sixgun in his lap under the table. When Colbert made his move, Allison fired a shot up through the table and killed Colbert.
When asked why he would have supper with an enemy, knowing that a shootout was imminent, Allison said, "I just didn't want to send a man to Hell on an empty stomach."
About a year later, Allison was part of a mob that took a suspected murderer, Cruz Vega, out of jail and strung him up from a telegraph pole. A few days later, Allison was in the St. James Hotel in Cimarron when Vega's employer, Pancho Griego, entered. The two men had a few drinks together and then stepped over to an isolated corner of the room for a private conversation. Angry words erupted, and both men went for their guns. Allison was faster.
The most interesting story in Allison's life did not involve a gunfight. In about 1876 or 1877, Allison was approached by some Texas cattlemen who hired him to go to Dodge City, Kansas, and settle the hash of one of the local policemen, a fellow named Wyatt Earp. Legend has it that he met Earp on the street and made attempts to instigate a fight. Earp is supposed to have struck Allison in the belly with his Colt Peacemaker and ordered the New Mexico gunman to drop his gun. Allison noted that Bat Masterson was standing nearby with a sawed-off shotgun aimed in his direction. Allison might have indulged in drink a little too aggressively, but he was not a fool. He is said to have made his apologies, mounted his horse, and left Dodge City in his dust.
It must be noted that there are a number of Western historians who doubt this encounter ever occurred. And there is no independent documentation to authenticate it. Like the fabled encounter between "Wild Bill" Hickok and John Wesley Hardin, it may just have been one of those wild stories that the cowboys told to while away the evenings around the campfire.
Allison's final gunfight of record occurred in 1876 at Las Animas, Colorado. Allison and his brother were attending a local dance and probably had taken on too much of a load of Who-Hit-John. In the midst of the merriment, a local deputy sheriff, Charles Faber, came after them with a shotgun. Deputy Faber shot Allison's brother with both barrels of the scattergun before Clay could get his .45 Colt into play. Triggering his sixgun, Clay killed the deputy and then surrendered to the sheriff. Surprisingly, Allison's brother recovered from his wounds, and the charges against Clay were dismissed.
By 1880, Clay Allison had turned over a new leaf. He moved to Hemphill County, Texas, and got married. Perhaps as the result of getting hitched to the right woman, he abandoned the whiskey bottle and laid aside his ivory-handled .45 revolver. The gunfighter had become a family man.
The good life was short. Of all the old gunfighters, Allison died perhaps the most unexpected and peculiar death. In 1886, while on a supply-buying trip to Pecos, Texas, Allison fell off the seat of his wagon, and a wheel rolled over his head. This famous Southwestern gunfighter was dead within the hour.
Northeastern New Mexico is still good ranch country, and the people there still have a strong sense of the old frontier ethic. Many times in the evening, after the first round of drinks are poured, some old-timer will push his hat back and start out by saying, "My grandpappy used to tell about the time that him and Clay Allison... ."
In many ways, the West is still the West. And many of us are thankful for it.