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Killing on the Chisum Ranch; Cowboys riled up over fancy sombrero stolen from leader of Mexican band of thieves

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Cowboys who worked for Slaughter. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

How many of you know that there was a killing and burial on Chisum’s Ranch the Jingle Bob southeast of Roswell? Those were the days of cattle rustling, gambling and vigilante justice. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was the good guy and who was the bad guy, if in fact, one could distinguish between the two.

The following story comes from the book, “The Southwest of John Horton Slaughter,” written by Alan A. Erwin.

From Dimmit County near the Slaughter Trail out of Fort Ewell came a cowboy by the name of Barney Gallagher. He was now making his home around Fort Stockton, Texas. Here was a band of rustlers and Gallagher was said to be one of them. His sidekick was a man remembered by some old-timers as Boyd. Somewhere trouble had brewed between him and John Slaughter. He followed John’s trail across the arroyos on up from Black River, leading past Seven Rivers up to South Springs, where Chisum was headquartering.

On this occasion, John Chisum was not home, but his brothers Jim and Pitzer were present. Sometime before this, Gallagher had killed a leader of a bunch of Mexican thieves and had taken his sombrero. It was a costly thing, mounted with silver and gold trimmings. All the rustler crowd were after Gallagher asking him to will it to them, if he should ever die. However, this was far from Barney Gallagher’s mind. He was brave and a good shot. His mission was to kill Slaughter, take his money belt and run off his cattle. He had brought his boys with him to do just that.

There must’ve been some betting among the men, and Gallagher’s wager was the valuable sombrero just in case he lost. Playing the role of a sure winner, Gallagher rode up to the tail end of the herd and spoke to one of the Slaughter cowboys. “You tell that little rat-headed Slaughter up front, I’m here to kill him.” “Wait right here, I’ll tell Mr. Slaughter what you said,” was the reply, and the drag rider loped up to the pointers and waved his boss down.

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Like vultures lined up 100 yards off to one side sat Gallagher’s men on horseback. They were not taking part, only joking about how the sombrero would look on them. Slaughter loped his horse at a good pace heading for the bad man who had announced in such an unfriendly way that he had come to kill him. Gallagher was waiting for his man to come into range, holding a sawed-off shotgun in his hand. As Slaughter closed the gap, Gallagher spurred his horse to meet him and swerved to the side to make sure his buckshot would find its mark. Since Slaughter’s coat was flying in the breeze and his hands were on the rein, Gallagher must have thought it certain that his threat would be carried out. Then like a flash a pistol came as if out of nowhere. Slaughter kept on the pommel of the saddle before him. One shot hit Gallagher in the heart and he fell out of the saddle. Whether a second shot was fired is not known.

In 1876, Gus Gildea, a trail driver, stopped by the Chisum Ranch on South Springs. He had known Gallagher in Dimmit County, describing him as a typical old-time cowboy of his day. He saw where Gallagher had fallen only shortly before. Several accounts of this fight between Slaughter and Gallagher at South Springs have been published. But only the mention made by Gus Gildea and Raht, in his “Romance of the Davis Mountains,” gave a reasonable clue. Fannie Slaughter, who lived on the Black River when this happened, gave the account here mentioned. Will Chisum, who had arrived there a few months later, heard a somewhat similar account. However, when Gen. Lew Wallace came into office as governor of New Mexico, he listed the killing as murder. This idea was conveyed to him by a man named Gilbert at Seven Rivers, and John Slaughter would hear more of this later.

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It was learned that Slaughter had a misunderstanding with Gallagher and Boyd over a game of poker in San Antonio. It seems Slaughter was pointed out as being well-fixed, and one who liked to play poker. Gallagher and Boyd decided to fleece him, and as the story goes, by playing a game with marked cards. The game started on Commerce Street in a back room and went on for hours. Gold coins often appeared and the pots were raised to high stakes. Then when things looked good for Slaughter, he suddenly saw a crooked move involving a joker up the sleeve. Before Gallagher could rake in the pot, he found himself and Boyd staring down the muzzle of a six shooter. Slaughter swept up the pot, stuffed it in his pocket, then made a quick exit into the dark and got away.

Now they were out to get the man who beat them at their own game. They saddled up and headed for Frio Town, and after arriving with quite a mob, they rode up to Charley’s rock house. When Charley (older brother to John H Slaughter) answered the door they were certain this was John who was about the same size. In San Antonio all had been drinking, and they were in no condition to know whether Charley was John or vice versa. It took a lot of persuading that this was not John. Finally a little girl was given a message to call Billy Slaughter, as he was very much respected in the neighborhood. He came at once and saved Charley’s life. By this time John had gone with Billy Childress to the Devil’s River. Charley had told them John was in New Mexico, thinking probably the matter would be dropped. Charley’s explanation must have not been clear, for they thought he said John was in Mexico, not New Mexico.

When William J Chisum arrived at South Springs Ranch to live with his uncle John in December 1877, the grave of Barney Gallagher was still fresh. Gallagher was buried near an old irrigation ditch about 100 yards from the old square adobe ranch house on the Chisum place near Roswell. His funeral was simple. He was stripped of his belongings, rolled in a saddle blanket and buried. After Slaughter had left, Boyd returned with a few of his henchmen and lay claim to Gallagher‘s expensive, embroidered and silver mounted Mexican sombrero. He said Gallagher had promised it to him, should the latter die.

As William J Chisum summed it all up, Gallagher was simply “Pecosed,” which was the slang term used by the cowboys for anyone who met a similar fate along the banks of the Pecos River. Gallagher was only one of many who occupied an unmarked grave in that country.

Down on Seven Rivers, a tributary of the Pecos, Charley had scouted a ranch location. Perhaps he didn’t like the close call he had experienced in Texas from Gallagher’s Fort Stockton rustlers. At first, Charley had a temporary camp at Seven Rivers along about 3 a.m. on the day after Gallagher was killed, a breathless messenger swiftly dismounted from his fleet footed cow pony and found John’s brother asleep. Rattling the wagon sheet that sheltered him, he brought the message that John had just killed a man at the Chisum Ranch. Within a half hour, Charley and his informant were headed for the Jingle Bob headquarters, only to find that his younger brother had headed in the direction of the Casey Ranch, well out of danger of any of Gallagher’s lurking henchmen.

Editor’s note: This is just another story of the Pecos Valley and the part it played in the Old West.

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John Horton Slaughter (Oct. 2, 1841 — Feb. 16, 1922), also known as Texas John Slaughter, was an American lawman, cowboy, poker player and rancher in the Southwest during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After serving in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, Slaughter earned a reputation fighting hostile Indians and Mexican and American outlaws in the Arizona and New Mexico territories. In the latter half of his life, he lived at the San Bernardino Ranch, which is today a well-preserved National Historic Landmark in Cochise County in far southeastern Arizona. He battled in the American Civil War, Apache and Comanche Wars, and was a Texas Ranger, rancher, sheriff and U.S. Marshal.

Source: Wikipedia.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.