September 23, 2010
In many of the fictitious stories of the Old West the hero wanders around righting wrongs and fighting injustice without any obvious means of support. Some have likened this to the legends of the knights of old who were always on some honorable quest. In truth the western shootists were men who were simply trying to make a living and deal with life on a raw frontier. Of course, some were just plain sorry and made their way by stealing from their neighbors. But for the most part, the western gunfighter was a lawman, gambler, businessman, or rancher. One notable example was John Calhoun Pinckney Higgins.
Pink Higgins, as he was known to friends and enemies alike, was born in Georgia in 1851. He was a child when his family moved to Texas and finally settled near the central Texas town of Lampasas. In those days folks would take up a little homestead where they kept a garden and raised chickens and hogs. They also would build up a herd of cattle that ran on the open range.
As a young man Pink helped his father run the family ranch and also served on the local ranging company that always stood ready to protect the settlements from raids by the Comanche. It was a tough country with lots of danger and hard work, and boys grew up quickly, often playing a man's role while barely into their teens. Higgins soon grew into the kind of young man who worked hard, controlled his natural fears, and met difficult situations head on. Before he was 20 years old, Pink had been wounded twice while fighting Indian raiding parties.
SETTLING SOME COW BUSINESS
Higgins finally went out on his own, founded his own ranching operation, and began to run his cattle on the surrounding open range. Back in those days, most of the country was public land with ranchers only owning a small acreage that their homes and barns sat on. Cattle were branded with the owners brand and turned loose to fend for themselves. Once in a while all the neighbors would gather and began a general roundup, separating everyone's cattle and branding the calves with the brand that their mommas were wearing.
Of course, those less honest would get out on the range early and go to branding calves with their own brand, regardless of the mother's mark. Many a gunfight occurred when a cow and her calf were found to be wearing different brands. The Horrell brothers were willing to take those chances in order to build up their herd. They thought they were plenty tough enough to deal with any arguments from their neighbors. They figured without Pink Higgins.
Pink Higgins (first row, far right) was an honest man driven to action by the outlaws of the Old West who plagued his life.
Some say that the Horrell-Higgins Feud started when Pink drove some of his cows to the Horrell's pens and paired them up with a bunch of calves that were longing to taste their mothers' milk. In ranch country that's usually proof enough, but a trial jury decided that while the calves obviously belonged to Higgins, the Horrells were not guilty of a crime. For his part Higgins decided that the jury didn't know how to properly deal with cow thieves. He vowed to just skip this jury business if any more cattle thefts occurred.
In about 1877 Pink again found that someone was tampering with his cattle. It didn't take much investigation for Pink to decide that Merritt Horrell was the guilty party. Pink checked the loads in his ever-present Winchester Model 73 carbine, probably in .44-40 caliber, and went hunting for Horrell. He found his man in the Matador Saloon in Lampasas and shot him four times as quick as anyone had ever seen a lever-action rifle fired. His laconic remark just before firing was, "Mr. Horrell, this is to settle some cow business."
During the same general period, Pink encountered a Horrell cowboy named Ike Lantier out on the range. Ike pulled a revolver, and Pink went to work with his Winchester. Lantier died on the spot.
Some days later, Pink and some of his cowboys caught Sam and Mart Horrell watering their horses at a creek near Lampasas. In the short, hot fight that followed, both brothers were wounded but managed to get away. Higgins had declared war on cattle rustlers in general, and the Horrell brothers in particular.
The Texas Rangers finally intervened before Higgins killed all of the Horrells. Both parties were forced to sign letters of apology and indicating their intent to let bygones be bygones. But gunfights still weren't a thing of the past for Pink.
FINISHING THE FEUD
Sometime in the 1880s, Higgins rode down to Villa Acuna, Coahuila, Mexico, to take delivery of some horses that he'd already made a hefty down payment on. Once in Mexico, the seller claimed he didn't know anything about the horses and didn't know anything about a down payment. It might have been worked out if the fool hadn't pulled a handgun on Pink. Pink's Winchester roared, the horse dealer fell dead on the spot, and Pink hit a long lope for the Rio Grande. At the banks of the river, Pink took cover and shot it out with his pursuers until dark, when he swam the river back to Texas.
Finally, in about 1900, Higgins moved his family to the Texas Panhandle and went to work for the big Spur Ranch as a livestock detective. Before long, bad blood developed with Bill Standifer, another stock detective. Since the ranch didn't want to have any trouble, both men were fired, but the trouble continued.
About 1903 Standifer rode out to Pink's homestead to settle the feud. Seeing the man coming, Pink mounted up and rode out to meet him. Now, when two feudists ran into each other on horseback, the general practice was to quickly dismount and use the horse for cover, shooting over the top of the saddle. Higgins later said that he just watched Standifer's boot and when it came out of the stirrup, he knew that Standifer was going to the ground. Pink beat him to the punch and killed the stock detective on the spot with a Winchester Model 1894 in .30-30, which he had traded his old Model 73 for.
Seeing that the gunfight had happened anyway, the Spur management decided it wouldn't do any harm to hire Pink back. So once he was cleared by the grand jury, Higgins went right back to riding the range for the Spur. However, at 52 years of age, Pink had killed his last man. He died quickly, and quietly of a heart attack on December 18, 1913. He was buried at Spur, Texas, in the heart of the cattle country.
By modern standards, some would say that Higgins was a violent man. However, it is much more realistic to evaluate history in terms of the customs and the conditions of the time. Back in those days law enforcement was spread pretty thin, and bullies used that opportunity to take advantage of their neighbors. It took strong men like Pink Higgins to hold the outlaws at bay until civilization could catch up and establish some law and order
. They were lucky that they had the Winchester rifle to help them bring peace to the frontier.
THE ORIGINAL "RIFLEMAN"
Much has been made of the cowboys' use of their revolvers, but the truth is that most of them fought with rifles if they had them handy. In those days handguns were considered short-range propositions, and the rifle was more powerful and more accurate. Although he generally always carried a .38-40 Colt single action, Pink Higgins preferred to rely on his Winchester Model 1873, probably chambered for the .44-40, even when fast shooting was the order of the day.
To accomplish this, Higgins probably just pointed his rifle at the enemy, much as a point-shooter would handle his handgun today. But Higgins also worked out a way to trip the trigger with his thumb each time the lever was closed. I imagine it was done much like we remember seeing Chuck Connors work his rifle on The Rifleman TV series. However, Connors' carbine had a screw run through the lever that would trip the trigger each time the lever was slammed shut.
By the time of his standoff with fellow stock detective Bill Standifer right after the turn of the 20th century, Higgins had traded in his 1873 carbine for a Winchester Model 1894 in .30-30 caliber. The Model 1894 was the first lever-action rifle to be chambered for a smokeless powder cartridge, and the rifle was so popular that it was one of the first guns, if not the first, to pass the one-million mark in sales. Its combination of portability and power make it a popular gun for ranchers even today, nearly 100 years later.
Whether it was a Winchester Model 1873 or a Model 1894, Pink Higgins proved that a lever-action carbine sure came in handy when times were tough in the Old West.