“Ready Huerta?”: Some Tales from the Old West

Having to go [to Hickok’s cottage in Abilene] early one morning Bill was still in bed and when I went to the door and the woman came to let me in she saw through the window who I was—she was only just up and still in night dress. Bill said: “Let him in you don’t give a damn for Gross seeing you.” But she did and showed it in looks. She went into the next room and Bill got up leisurely and as he sat sideways on the bed I saw he had his six shooter in his right hand and on the bedspread lay a sawed-off shot gun (double barreled) with a strap on it so he could swing it over his shoulder and carry it under his coat out of sight and I don’t think the barrel was more than 1½ feet long.

— Charles Gross to J.B. Edwards, June 15, 1925

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Many Confederate soldiers returning home from the war brought with them old Enfield muskets. These were smooth-bore and chambered one large ball and three buckshot. These old guns, loaded with small shot, were fine for use on birds and squirrels, but they had one serious objection—they would kick like a mule. As the boys used to say, they would “get meat at both ends.”

— Six Years With the Texas Rangers, James B. Gillett

***

The gold rush gambling graduate with the most spectacular later career was probably John Morrisey. In 1851, when Morrisey arrived in San Francisco, he was a nineteen-year-old New York tough with a barrel chest, brawny shoulders, hands the size of hams, and thirteen dollars in his pocket. Opening a brace faro game with a stranded artist as a partner, he prospered quickly. One of his victims, a man named John Hughes, upon finding that he had been fleeced, challenged Morrisey to a duel and gave the New Yorker his choice of weapons. Hughes blanched and fled the field of honor when Morrisey appeared at the appointed place carrying two meat cleavers.

— Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers, Robert K. DeArment

***

[Toribio] Huerta was due for a hanging and I was the man to do it. No, I didn’t mind. He was a murderer and had to pay the penalty. I was the sheriff and had to do my duty….

“Sheriff, don’t spring me too quick!” Huerta begged. So we let him make a speech to the audience and he advised the young men who’d come to watch him die, not to set their feet on the path of crime. Then we tied the black cap over his head, but still he wasn’t ready. We let him pray there in the darkness. Finally I said, “Ready Huerta?” and he nodded—and for weeks it was a byword around town, “Ready Huerta?”

— on the last public hanging in Las Cruces, 1900, as told by Jose Lucero to Margaret Page Hood, The New Mexico Sentinel, 1/26/38, and quoted in An Illustrated History of New Mexico by Thomas E. Chavez

***

The tenderfeet and the townspeople thought of the country people out on the cattle ranges and in the mountains as semi-savages. I once heard a Las Cruces merchant say of a country wife, “She was just an old ranch woman. She’d spit through a screen door.”

 — Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West, C.L. Sonnichsen

***

The Green Front [a San Antonio gambling house] featured “Girls! Girls! Girls!” with dances available at “two bits a spasm.” Tableaux vivant with scantily clad females were presented nightly. One of these “living pictures,” featuring Georgia Drake as Miss Liberty bringing together a Union and Confederate solider, dissolved rather suddenly when an unreconstructed Civil War veteran shot Miss Liberty dead just as she lifted freedom’s torch.

— Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers, Robert K. DeArment

***

I went to the hotel [in Columbus, Ohio]. As it was rather late, we all retired to our room. The bellboy showed us to our room, which was a large double-bedded room, and turned on the light. When we were ready for bed, the question arose as to how we should extinguish the light, as we were all afraid of getting an electric shock if we tried it. None of us had ever noticed how it was put out. One of the party wanted to call the bellboy back and have him extinguish it, but I told him if we did so we should be the laughing stock of the city, so I told them to get into bed and I would try it. Knowing that paper was a non-conductor, I placed a newspaper on the floor under the light, and, standing at arm’s length, I reached up and turned it out expecting to get a shock. I know the rest of the gang were disappointed when they saw that I did not get what all of us expected.

*

At about ten o’clock that morning the [Vigilance] Committee [in Phoenix] went to the jail and took the two murderers out and hanged them to cottonwood trees in front of the town hall….The first man to be hanged either fainted or the noose was too tight. He sank down on the rope, and, as there was very little slack, his neck was not broken; he just strangled.

The other man, just as the team started to drive from under him, jumped as high as he could and his neck was broken. Everything was very quiet when someone in the crowd spoke up, “Why, the son of a gun must have been hanged before. He knows just how to do it.”

Helldorado, William M. Breakenridge

***

According to one resident, [Deputy James H. McDonald, who’d just fled the scene of his sheriff’s brutal murder] bolstered his courage in a saloon, where, “leaning against the bar, with a drink of whiskey in his hand, he blubbered out his yarn. There being nobody to dispute him, his story had to go. But I can still recall the looks that passed between men who had been raised from birth to eat six-shooters. It was so rank that no one could say a word.”

  Charles F. Gross to J.B. Edwards, August 23, 1922

***

And then there was Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his situation by robbing the bank one town over from his own. It was a bad move: a couple of citizens were killed in the robbery, then Brown and his friends managed to trap themselves in a box canyon that was filling up with rainwater. They surrendered and spent the day in the Medicine Lodge lockup, waiting for the mob outside to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to pen a farewell to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came for them that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street it was reported that the flash from one of the pistols set his vest on firewhile the rest of his friends were lynched.

That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles.

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