September 23, 2010
You can learn some valuable lessons from this fictional tale about Ranger Creed Taylor. -- The Editors
It all started over a herd of cattle. Of course, out in this country the trouble is nearly always started over somebody else's something--cattle, or water rights, or woman. This time it happened to be cattle.
The Colt Peacemaker in .38-40 was a popular handgun in the Old West because it was potent and dependable.
Alonzo Black had a little homesteaded place down in the south end of Presidio County and ran his herd of cattle on the state land that surrounded him. Now, I'm telling you that's hardscrabble country down that way; it's a tough country to make a living in. But it seems that Alonzo had come up with a way to turn an extra dollar.
He went over into Mexico and bought up a herd of steers that he arranged to be delivered to the U.S. Customs pens at Presidio. Actually, he only ran about a third of the herd through the Customs pens and paid duty on them. The rest of the herd he drove up the Rio Grande and crossed them during the dark of night. Avoiding paying duty on the majority of the cattle would give Alonzo that extra profit when he delivered the herd to the buyers at the railroad shipping pens at Valentine. And if he was stopped he could always show the duty papers and receipt he'd gotten from the Customs officers.
The whole scheme would probably have worked pretty well except that his path to Valentine led right across the homestead of Henry Skinner. In his hurry to get to the railhead, Alonzo committed a serious violation of range-country manners. He cut Skinner's fences and left them lay.
Back in those days, Henry Skinner was running a prosperous pool hall in Alpine and letting his son look after his homestead holdings. Ranch-country gossip being what it is, Henry knew exactly what Alonzo Black was up to and had decided to mind his own business and let Alonzo mind his. All of that changed, as you might imagine, when Henry's son reported to him about the cut fences. Henry went straight to Milan Wright, the U.S. Customs agent, and told him all about Alonzo's herd of smuggled cattle.
Agent Wright jumped into action and stopped Alonzo's herd just south of Valentine. He confiscated the cattle and cited Alonzo to federal court for smuggling livestock, an offense that could end up with him going to the federal pen. Somehow or another--that's the way these things usually work out--Alonzo found out that Henry Skinner was the one who had turned him in, and he vowed to kill him on sight.
That's the reason Henry showed up at my Alpine office looking for help. "Ranger Taylor," he said, "I've never owned a pistol, but I sure think I might need one now. Could you help me out?"
Well, I couldn't see any faults in that sort of argument, so I took him down the street to the gun shop and helped him pick one out. The shop had a good assortment of handguns, plenty of Colt single actions and even a few of the double-action guns that some folks seemed to like. While Henry was looking at the new guns, I spotted a 51/2-inch Colt single action in .38-40 with a pretty set of maple handles. It was a used gun, but I knew it had belonged to an old constable who had just passed away. The action was slick and the cylinder locked up tight as could be. I told Henry to buy that one and had the gunsmith throw in three boxes of shells and a stack of targets.
Our next stop was a dry arroyo on the edge of town, a place where most local folks did their target practice. After we set up the targets, I had him back off about 10 yards and load his sixgun.
"Now, Henry," I said as I started my gun lecture, "there's no time for you to learn to be a fast-draw artist or some kind of fancy exhibition shooter, so get that out of your mind. What I want you to do is hold the gun out in front of you and focus your eyes on the black bullseye. Take your time, but make an effort to put every shot you fire into that bullseye. Don't try for speed. Just keep concentrating on working the gun smoothly and keeping your shots in the black.
"Alonzo Black is a bully, and he will try to take you when he has all the advantage. He thinks he's pure poison with that nickel-plated .44-40 he carries. Well, maybe he is and maybe he isn't, but your only chance is to keep your cool and make every shot count. If you only get off one shot, you need to make sure that you hit him with it."
I followed up my little shooting lesson by saying, "I want you to shoot up every one of these 150 cartridges in slow, deliberate practice. And when you run out of shells, go buy some more and keep on practicing. Then you stick that gun in the front of your pants, under your vest, and you wear it every single minute of every day that you are awake until this deal is over. Me and the sheriff's boys will be around town, and we'll try to stop the trouble if we can. But you have to be ready to protect yourself at an instant's notice."
Well, wouldn't you know it, the whole deal came to a boil the very day I had to ride the train down to Sanderson and pick up a prisoner. I don't know where the sheriff's men were. Maybe they were busy, or maybe they just didn't want any part of Alonzo Black.
Alonzo charged into the pool hall as Henry was bent over a table, racking up balls for some guys playing a tournament. Just as Alonzo drew his gun, Henry saw him and chucked the rack against the far wall. As Alonzo glanced toward the noise, Henry drug out his .38-40.
Alonzo Black might still have won that fight if he had not gone to fanning his gun. With Alonzo's bullets flying all around, Henry just raised his gun and shot Alonzo right between his shirt pockets. Then, as Alonzo staggered back, Henry slowly recocked his revolver and shot him in the chest again. Alonzo Black was what we call "DRT"...dead right there.
As soon as I got back to Alpine, the district attorney told me all about the gunfight and said that he didn't think he would have any trouble getting the grand jury to no-bill Henry. In fact, he had allowed Henry to be released on his own recognizance. The next person I went to see was Henry.
"Ranger, that was a horrible affair, and I hope I never have to go through such a thing again. But I did what you told me to do. I practiced being smooth and hitting the target every time. In fact, I'm proud to say that I kept all my shots in the Black."