Category Archives: Guns

The gunfights I had as a child – but don’t worry too much about the heading

Yesterday – 26th October 1881 – was the day of the gunfight at the OK Corral; the most famous – or was it infamous – shoot out in the Wild West.  It took place in Tombstone, Arizona when the Earp family [Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan] had a shoot-out with the Clantons [Ike, Phineas and Billy] and the McLaurys [Tom and Frank].

The sight of this gunfight is now a tourist attraction with life-size replicas of the combatants and a daily re-enactment of the 30-second exchange of bullets that have resounded through history and captured the imagination of cowboy enthusiasts the world over.

I was one of those ‘cowboys’ here in England back in the 1940s and, maybe, into the early 1950s.  My children – and grandchildren – just look blankly at me when I tell them of the ‘battles’ I had when I was their age.

Do you have any situations like this? I’d love to hear about them if you have.

I loved reading the stories of this man

For most of those reading this there may be the thought ‘Who’s he?’ or ‘So what?’  For men of a certain age – and maybe some ladies – the outlaw Billy the Kid was a part of our youth – part of a time when young boys would have great fun playing cowboys and watching cowboy films in the cinema and on television.   I’m afraid I can’t avoid telling a bit more about Billy – and about Sheriff Pat Garrett.  Please feel free to move on to something else!

On Thursday 14th July 1881 one Henry McCarty – known by many over the years as William H. Bonney and even more as Billy the Kid – was shot and killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett outside Fort Sumner, USA.  For most of those reading this there may be the thought ‘Who’s he?’ or ‘So what?’  For men of a certain age – and maybe some ladies – the outlaw Billy the Kid was a part of our youth – part of a time when young boys would have great fun playing cowboys and watching cowboy films in the cinema and on television.

Billy the Kidd was first arrest was for stealing food in late 1875, and within five months he was arrested for stealing clothing and firearms. His escape from jail two days later and flight from New Mexico Territory into Arizona Territory made him both an outlaw and a federal fugitive.

After murdering a blacksmith during an altercation in August 1877, Bonney became a wanted man in Arizona Territory and returned to New Mexico, where he joined a group of cattle rustlers. He became a well-known figure in the region when he joined the Regulators and took part in the Lincoln County War. In April 1878, however, the Regulators killed three men, including Lincoln County Sheriff William J Brady and one of his deputies. Bonney and two other Regulators were later charged with killing all three men.

Bonney’s notoriety grew in December 1880 when the Las Vegas Gazette in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the New York Sun carried stories about his crimes. He was captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett later that same month, tried and convicted of the murder of Brady in April 1881, and sentenced to hang in May of that year. Bonney escaped from jail on April 28th 1881, killing two sheriff’s deputies in the process, and evaded capture for more than two months. He ultimately was shot and killed by Garrett in Fort Sumner on July 14th 1881. Over the next several decades, legends grew that Bonney had not died that night, and a number of men claimed they were him.


Rifles and more surprises

As I said last time – it wasn’t just the guns that made us stop – it was the men themselves.  Both could have stepped from the pages of a history book. They were short, stocky men with black, pointed beards. Each wore knee breeches and a white lined shirt open at the neck. One wore a broad red fabric belt; the other wore blue. On their feet were heavy leather shoes with large silver buckles. Neither wore a hat and their black hair was swept back and was just long enough to touch the collar. As they reached us I saw their guns clearly. Each had a wisp of smoke coming from it. They were holding match-lock muskets. No one had used those since the middle of the seventeenth century!

We faced the two men – each pair unsure of the intentions of the other. My father was the first to act.  “Buenos días, señores, he said, taking a step forward, his right hand held up, palm outward in the universal sign of peace.  Blue Belt lifted his musket at father’s movement. Red Belt just eyed us both and then returned the greeting – “Buenos días.”

“You give us a strange welcome,” my father continued. “Are visitors always met in this way?”

The two men exchanged glances and muttered something to each other. Blue Belt nodded and stepped to one side, motioning with his match-lock that he wished us to walk through.

“Better do as they wish, Juan,” father said in a low voice. “I don’t know who’s more surprised and nervous – them or us.”

I nodded, too frightened to speak. The two men fell in behind us, guns still held ready for use. As we drew level with the cottage, a voice from behind bade us stop. We stood in silence.  Then we both jumped as a single clear bugle note sounded from just behind us. The sound echoed and re-echoed around the valley. I turned to look and was just in time to see Blue Belt handing a silver bugle to an elderly woman dressed in clothes as dated as his.

He saw me looking and gestured with his musket. “Walk. Follow the road.” Their Spanish was unmistakable, with a distinctive soft, lilt I’d never heard before.

Father started to move. “Come on, Juan. That was obviously a signal to the village. My guess is that there’ll be a reception committee waiting for us when we arrive.”

He was right. When we reached the village there were people lining the streets, watching us walk ahead of the two men. The watchers all appeared to be men, and were dressed in the same outdated style as our escorts. I also noticed that there were no children around. In any other village in Mexico a pavement gathering would bring children all around. But in this strange village of men with ancient muskets and old-fashioned clothes, there were none to be seen.

Our cottage escorts were replaced by two new men as we were guided onward.

Facing us when we reached the square in the middle of the village was a large building with a pitched roof, an impressive façade, and a pair of huge carved doors. The doors were reached by a broad flight of snow-white stone steps. On each side of each step stood a man wearing a shiny metal breastplate, holding an ornate pike. They stood to attention, facing forward, but I could sense their eyes as they watched our every step. At the top of the steps stood three men dressed in distinguished uniforms.  As we reached the foot of the steps the three men turned and went through the doors. Our new escorts motioned us up the steps, indicating that we should follow the vanished dignitaries.

As we entered the building both father and I stopped. After the bright sunlight the darkness inside was absolute. Our escorts evidently realised our difficulty and waited as our eyes adjusted until we could see the three uniformed men seated at a large table across the far end of the hall. From each end of their table extended longer, narrower tables. At each sat six men facing the centre of the three sided box. Our escort – Blue Belt – was among them. It was obviously a gathering of the village elders and councillors.  The hall was cool and quiet. The high roof was supported by massive wooden beams. Narrow windows, set high in the very eaves, let in light, though not direct sunlight. The walls themselves were decorated with flags, standards and pennants, interspersed with polished breastplates and decorated armour; all of sixteenth century design.

I felt a nudge in my back and was pushed forward to stand with my father.

Spanish style houses come into view

Juan and his father had come to an amicable agreement with their porters and on the next morning the porters had prepared their rations and stood and watched as the two headed south.  Juan picks up the story:-

On the second day we started to climb through the foothills of the Sierra Madre. Father continued taking his readings every hour, and I prepared our evening meal while he wrote up his notes.

It was on the morning of our sixth day alone that we topped another scrub-covered ridge and stopped in amazement. Every other ridge we had breasted had presented us with another in the distance. This one walled a cultivated valley. Through a quirk in the geology the valley had steeper sides than any we had seen. Instead of being a dip between ridges it had a finite shape. The far side was a distinct wall of rock. To the east a small river gushed down a steep incline, almost a waterfall, and then meandered gently across the flat valley floor to a lake that lay glistening in the sun away to the west. The banks of the river flanked neat fields. On each side of the river a white road wound through the fields, joining near a small bridge to become a single road leading into a village of white, flat-roofed, Spanish-styled houses.

“The Valley of Quetzalcóatl,” I heard my father murmur. It was then I noticed something else: although the fields looked well-tended, there was no sign of movement anywhere in the valley.

I mentioned it to my father.

He shrugged his shoulders and looked up towards the sun. “The people will be taking siesta now. It will be warmer in the valley than here on the ridge. Come, let’s go down and see if we can meet the dwellers of Quetzalcóatl’s valley.”  With that he hitched his rucksack onto his shoulders and set off down the slope.

After a few moments’ hesitation I followed him. As we walked through the fields we could see stone-lined irrigation channels leading water from the river to every field. “This is the work of skilled men,” father said as we walked. “No Indians I’ve ever known would do this.”

We turned a bend in the road and saw ahead of us a white cottage with orange trees in the garden and a vine with bright yellow flowers growing all over the veranda. Almost as soon as we saw the cottage a man appeared in the doorway.  As he looked around he saw us. For a long moment he stood still; then he went back into the cottage.

“I have a feeling we shall soon find out what sort of people live in Quetzalcóatl’s Valley, Juan,” my father said. “Just stay calm. I have my rifle and pistol if we need them – just pray we don’t have to use them.”

We kept walking and were within twenty metres of the cottage when the man reappeared, closely followed by a second man. Father and I stopped in our tracks – both were carrying guns. “Easy, Juan,” my father warned.

But it wasn’t just the guns that made us stop – it was the men themselves.