drink your milk!
GUNFIGHT AT HARSHAW
George H. Lafferty
A sharp pain shot through my leg as I stepped out into the dusty street
from the front of the Harshaw Bros. Saloon. It was just a few weeks ago
that I was able to get off the crutch and if I step wrong, it still hurts
like all get out. A bad thigh wound from an Apache bullet. I took another
in the side but it just cracked a rib and made for a really sensational
scar along my side. The rib has healed enough not to bother me much but
my leg is a different story.
I think I will postpone leaving town for awhile and give this leg a
little more time to toughen back up. I have been planning on heading up
toward the canyon. I've heard a lot about this huge canyon up north but
I have to go see it for myself to believe it.
I managed to get hired on by the town council here in Harshaw, as a
deputy Town Marshal, but it ain't ever gonna make me rich. About the best
I can say for it is, it gives me a place to sleep and something to eat,
without staying at the hotel. These mining towns are pretty much alike.
Here today and gone as soon as the silver thins out.
I couldn't hold down much of a real job anyhow, with this leg, but I
can still haul in a drunk or break up a fight with a scattergun. Though
this is the first time I ever pinned on a badge, I have a head start. My
pa has been a lawman for years, back in Missouri, and I sort of grew up
I have just been drifting for the last few years. Taking on a job long
enough to keep the wolves away, but mostly just trying to see some more
of this great country. I usually work cattle but this time I am too stoved
up to handle my end and I believe in giving a fair days work for a fair
It ain't hard to get along out here in the west, as a mans reputation
sort of moves along with him. Develop a reputation as being a good hand
and a man who rides for the brand and a fella doesn't usually have too
much trouble finding work. On the other hand, once you get a reputation
as shiftless and lazy or none too honest, you may have to ride the owlhoot
trail. My pa taught me a lot of things and two of them were never to cross
the law and always make good on your word no matter what.
Why, not living up to your word would be near as bad as someone thinking
you were a coward. That kind of reputation will get you either killed or
sneered at, until you can't even look at yourself in a clear water hole.
Pa had a strict way about him and not much use for cowards, card cheats
or thieves. He didn't put up with a lot of nonsense either, so when I was
seventeen and getting a little swelled up with myself, he did two things.
First of all, he whupped the tar out of me to show me I wasn't near as
tough as I thought I was, then he sent me packing.
Pa was a half breed, my grandpa spent a few winters trapping up north
himself a Cheyenne squaw to keep him warm for a couple of winters. My
ma was pretty as could be, blonde and blue eyed. Me, I take more after
ma, blonde, with blue eyes and big like her side of the family. I am six-two
in my socks and haul two hundred pounds around on a pretty lean frame.
I got nicknamed the Kid while I was seventeen or eighteen and with my last
name being Irish, they started calling me Kid Irish, and it sort of stuck,
though people here in Harshaw just know me as Rusty.
Pa told me I was welcome to come back and visit every couple of years
if I took a notion, just to let me know there were no hard feelings.
Looking around the Marshal's Office at some of the wanted posters sort
of brought back memories from Missouri. Pa never came up against some of
the boys with the big reputations, at least not as far as I knew, but he
was sure in the right location to run into them. Southwest Missouri had
its share of visits from fellas like the James and the Youngers, along
with the Daltons. Put that together with some of the war's hard cases,
such as the Kansas Redlegs and Bloody Bill Anderson and you had enough
excitement to keep you pretty busy.
Top all that off with plenty of good old boys, who could and would kill
you just as dead, without worrying about how big their reputation was.
Pa was still alive and doing his job five years or so ago, when I left,
and that speaks for his being quick and tough.
Bragging aside, I am panther quick with my Colt Peacemaker, and Pa really
frowned on wasting bullets by missing what you took a notion to shoot at.
With my saddle gun, I can hit damn near anything I want to, right down
to a rattler from horseback on a spooked horse. I been in several scrapes
since pa decided I should leave home and though I am sporting some nice
new scars, at least I am here to show them off. This last time is mostly
thanks to an old Navajo Medicine Man, if it weren't for him those Apaches
would have had my number for sure.
The old Indian came across me while I was unconscious and fevered and
kept me alive. If it hadn't been for the poultice he put on my leg, I probably
would have lost it. The sawbones in town, when I finally got here, debated
on whether or not to take it off as it was.
I've seen enough crippled veterans from the war to know I would rather
just go on and die and get it over with, than be crippled for life. Those
boys have a hard row to hoe and my hat is off to them, they have more courage
than I do.
If the town council knew why I was out there in Apache country alone,
they might have had second thoughts about hiring me, but I doubt it. This
isn't exactly a sought after job, or a healthy one, for that matter, in
a raw mining town, like this one.
I wasn't breaking the law really; I was just playing poker. The fella
thought I was bottom dealing, which I wasn't, and drew on me. Enough said,
I'm here, he ain't, but I did decide I had worn out my welcome in Tombstone.
I do not have a reputation as a gunfighter or a gun for hire and I don't
want the first and won't be the second. I've seen too many young fellas,
my age and even younger, with tied down guns and looking for a chance to
try out one of the big named gunhands. I hate having to take a life, problem
is I would hate losing mine even more.
Pulling out my pocket watch told me it was time for the first round
of walking the town. My pa always said a marshal would never know his town
if he stayed in his office until he was called upon. A good marshal, he
said, will walk his town, check in with the business owners and after they
close the saloons and such. You can stop a lot of trouble before it goes
too far but you have to be there to see it brewing first.
Even in the late morning hours just before sunup, you can walk the town
and rattle the doors on the businesses. I would rather catch a thief in
the act than try to solve who it was. Even if I don't catch him, I would
rather find what he has done and inform the owner than have the owner send
for me to report he was broken in to. Shows him I was there trying to do
my job anyway.
I had walked the town earlier, just before most of the businesses closed
for the day. I try to speak to as many of the shopkeepers as possible,
so they will feel easier about approaching me if the feel they need to.
Now, at this time of the evening, it is down mostly to the saloons and
the restaurant in the hotel.
I will combine business with pleasure and have dinner at the hotel while
I make this set of rounds. I get a bag of groceries every week in the marshal's
office, and since I cook better than Steve does, the Marshal, I do most
all the cooking, but Saturday night I usually try to eat at the hotel.
Steve usually stays out on the street somewhere, especially on Saturday
afternoons and nights. This is the liveliest time in town and also the
busiest for us.
As luck would have it, Steve was at the hotel before me and had just
sat down to order, when I walked in. He is a bigger man than I am at about
six four and a good two sixty. I have never seen him draw but he has been
marshal for nearly eight months and that means he has to be fairly good
at it. If he wasn't he would probably have been run out of town by some
of the rougher element or killed outright. Being able to brag that you
sent the law packing seems to be a real big thing in some of these trails
end or mining towns
True civilisation, meaning churches and schools and true police departments,
hasn't reached these raw new towns yet and never will get to most of them
before they become ghost towns anyway. These towns spring up over night,
either at tracks end where they are building the railroad, at the town
at the end of a trail drive, or in whatever forsaken place a rich vein
of ore of some kind is found. They attract the people looking to strike
it rich, one way or another. Some want to find a bonanza, some to sell
enough goods to retire, some to win at gambling and still others who will
try to steal it.
My pa always said it takes a town tamer to last very long in one of
these places. There is a Town Marshal name of Earp, who together with his
brothers, is building quite a reputation for himself as a town tamer.
Me, this is just a temporary thing for me, and I don't need or want
people talking about me. All I want to do is see this beautiful country
I live in and then maybe earn enough to start me a small spread, where
I can raise some fine horses. I haven't found exactly the place I want
yet. Who knows, maybe I will even find that certain someone to raise a
family of my own with. As Steve and I were walking out of the hotel, we
heard a series of three or four gunshots ring out down at the Harshaw Bros.
Running down the street, I took off down the side road nearest the saloon
and then cut up the alley, so as to come in the back door. Steve stayed
on the street, slowing down to give me time to get around back.
Coming in the front door, like he did, Steve was first to confront the
combatants. He yelled 'Marshal' to get their attention, then told them
to drop their guns. It didn't appear as if anyone was hurt yet. The boys
had been drinking all afternoon and weren't doing their best shooting.
Hoping to keep this at a drunk in public level, Steve had not drawn his
gun yet. This was probably a mistake as the boys were in a killing rage.
They both decided they could finish their personal business later and swung
their guns toward Steve.
'Drop em,' I yelled, stepping in from the back, then drawing fast and
firing at the cowboy who had swung and fired at me. There was the expected
confusion of shots and return fire and when the smoke cleared both cowboy's
were on the floor. One dead the other hit hard and dying. Unfortunately
Steve was down too and it didn't look good. I was okay and thanking God
the cowboy who shot at me had missed as the bullet hole in the bar beside
me was right at thigh height and on the same side as my bad thigh. Seems
like everyone is out to make sure I don't get to keep that leg.
Steve was hit bad all right, but there was a fair chance the Doc might
be able to help him. The wounded cowboy wasn't that lucky and was dead
before the Doc, hurriedly summoned by the bartender, arrived.
After Steve had been carried to the Doc's office and the bodies had
been carried down to the town undertakers place, I tried to find out what
had happened. It seems the boys had bumped into each other and each had
accused the other of being a clumsy jerk.
One thing led to another and they both thought it had gone too far to
settle without a fight, with guns, of course. The worst part of it was
everyone in the bar thought I should resign and head for the horizon as
the one I had killed, Bob Gibson had four brothers headed this way. The
fact that I was a Deputy Marshal, acting in the line of duty, and shot
back only in self defence, didn't seem to convince them that the brothers
wouldn't be after revenge.
I spent two days considering what I should do and then it was too late.
See, Steve was going to make it okay but he would be laid up for awhile.
My leg is better but I don't relish the idea of life in the saddle with
it hurting even this much and let's face it, I don't have a whole lot of
rabbit in me to start with. Maybe I ain't real smart but I took the job
in good faith and I guess I figured I should just stay and do my best.
Anyway, before I could reason it out in a way I could live with, they were
here. The Gibson brothers, that is, all four of them.
I knew going up against all four at once was suicide, so I had to get
them apart somehow. I had made some friends in town, at least good enough
to get two of them to go up to two different brothers, and tell them the
story that I was waiting for them on two different ends of town. They did
as I hoped and two went one way while the other two came my way.
I made sure they had time to get to opposite ends of town, then stepped
out in front of the two who had come my way. I tried to talk to them and
explain that I had only been doing my duty but they cut that short by starting
to draw. I drew as well, but as I dropped to the ground. I don't think
they were expecting that as they both fired too high to hit me, while I
let them each have two rounds apiece. I scored with all four rounds and
two of the brothers were down. I knew I had to get out of there and choose
my own ground again. It was the only way I had a chance of living through
this insanity. Reloading as I ran, I made sure I had a full cylinder to
meet the remaining brothers with. They were running toward where all the
shooting had come from so it wasn't too hard to get behind them. As soon
as they were past me, I yelled 'Hold it right there.'
They stopped and spun around. I hoped they would see the hopelessness
of drawing on me as I had the drop on them, but some people are just stubborn
I guess. I popped a round at the closest one, just as they both cut loose
at me, then did a drop and roll to the side. I rolled on my bad leg and
Jesus it hurt, but I managed to get two more rounds off at the second one
before he could adjust to my new location.
All I can say, is it is getting harder and harder not to build a reputation
as a gunhand. Especially when you kill four men in a gunfight in Harshaw.
( 1998 George H. Lafferty