One of the most enigmatic and colorful characters associated with New Mexico Territory’s Lincoln County War was Andrew L. “Buckshot” Roberts, a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. His presence at Blazer’s Mill on April 4, 1878, cost him his life and contributed yet another fascinating chapter to the lore of Billy the Kid. Roberts’ past was, and still is, shrouded in mystery, and no photographs of him are known to exist.
Everything known about Buckshot Roberts prior to February 9, 1878, is conjecture. He formally enters the history books as a result of joining a posse charged with going to the ranch of Englishman John Tunstall on the Rio Feliz. This posse, organized by Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, was ordered to seize all of the horses (including one allegedly loaned to Billy the Kid by James J. Dolan) and cattle in the area, particularly those on the Tunstall ranch. Why Roberts joined this posse is not clear. It is known that Roberts once worked at Dolan’s South Fork store and had a friendly relationship with the businessman, but it is just as likely that he joined for the pay. Dolan was a business partner of Lawrence Murphy, and the two held a monopoly in mercantile and cattle trade. Lawyer Alexander McSween and Tunstall, determined to drive the Murphy-Dolan combine out of business, owned all the livestock housed on the Rio Feliz ranch under a joint business agreement.
In addition to Roberts, the posse consisted of Deputy Sheriff Jacob B. “Billy” Mathews (a silent partner in the Dolan operation), George Hindman, John Hurley, Manuel Segovia, Jesse Evans, Frank Baker and Tom Hill. A party of Dolan’s men led by William “Buck” Morton subsequently reinforced this posse.
The deputized force arrived at the Tunstall ranch on the morning of February 13. Staying at the ranch were Billy the Kid, Dick Brewer, Fred Waite, John Middleton, Rob Widenmann, Godfrey Gauss, William McCloskey and eight others, all heavily armed. These men, believing the posse intended to kill them all, confronted it as it rode up to the ranch house, refused to allow the seizure of the stock, and ordered the members to leave. Not liking the odds, Mathews brought his party back to Lincoln to report to Sheriff Brady.
On February 18, Tunstall, along with Billy the Kid, Brewer, Widenmann, Middleton and Waite, was driving a small herd of horses to Lincoln. Concerned that an approaching posse intended harm, Tunstall’s riders fled, leaving the rancher in his wagon. From a distance, they watched as a large group of men rode up behind the wagon to shoot Tunstall. Shots were fired and Tunstall was killed. Although he had been a member of the legally conscripted posse that arrived at the Tunstall ranch on the 13th, Buckshot Roberts later insisted that he did not accompany the group that killed the Englishman.
Before Roberts signed on with the posse he was virtually unknown. A couple of months later, as a result of the famous shootout at Blazer’s Mill (sometimes seen as Blazer’s Mills), he was destined to occupy an inconsequential but interesting niche in the bloody Lincoln County War.
Much of what is known about Buckshot Roberts prior to the war came from the man himself. He was a Southerner, born in 1837, he said. He came from a poor background, drifted into the Texas Panhandle and worked as a buffalo hunter. He once said he teamed with Buffalo Bill Cody to supply meat for men building a railroad in the area. Roberts also claimed he served as a Texas Ranger, but no record of his enlistment has been found.
He told acquaintances that he was wanted by the Texas Rangers for some infraction, and that was the reason he left Texas for Lincoln County. He further claimed that during a gun battle with pursuing Rangers, a shotgun blast left him permanently crippled. His right shoulder was so full of buckshot that it provided the source of his nickname. As a result of his injury, Roberts found it necessary to fire a rifle from the hip—he was physically unable to lift the weapon above waist level. Still, he was regarded as a splendid shot and an excellent horseman.
Outlaws Henry Brown and John Middleton both insisted that Roberts’ real name was Bill Williams, but this has never been substantiated. Roberts did occasionally go by that name while in New Mexico, but using an alias was par for the course among men on the run. Aliases “Bill” and “Billy” were common in those days, as was “Bill Williams.” Roberts was a lean, scrawny man, and at 41 was considerably older than most of the outlaws and ranch hands who frequented the area around Lincoln. It was rumored he was a veteran of many gun battles, and was described as “cranky,” “surly,” “tough,” “a snake,” “a scrapper,” “courageous,” “knowing no fear” and “not easily intimidated.” It was rumored that Roberts was a member of Jesse Evans’ gang, called the Seven Rivers Warriors, which rustled cattle from area ranchers and sold them to the Murphy-Dolan cooperative, but this has never been proved.
During Roberts’ time in the region, the firmly entrenched partnership of Murphy and Dolan butted heads with newcomers Tunstall and McSween. As the feud between these two business and political factions heated up, Buckshot Roberts was quietly raising a few head of cattle on a small piece of land he claimed near the Rio Ruidoso not far from town.
Within a few days following the February 18 killing of Tunstall, McSween organized a group of men he called the Regulators. Appointing Brewer as leader, McSween charged them with bringing Tunstall’s killers to justice. Members of this group included Billy the Kid, Middleton, Waite, Brown, Frank McNab and Jim French (for more on French, see the December 2004 Wild West). Warrants of questionable legality were issued for Brady and members of the posse, including Buckshot Roberts, whom McSween said was with the group that killed his partner.
During the next several weeks, the Regulators were busy taking revenge for Tunstall’s death. Morton and Baker were overtaken along a trail, arrested and then killed as they allegedly tried to escape. On April 1, Sheriff Brady was gunned down in Lincoln. One by one, members of the posse were tracked down and killed, and it was only a matter of time before they caught up with Roberts.
Roberts was getting old and wanted no more of the fighting. When he discovered the Regulators wanted him in connection with Tunstall’s death, he decided to leave the county for good. On April 2, he sold his ranch to a man from Santa Fe who agreed to mail him a check, which was to be delivered to the post office at Blazer’s Mill. Blazer’s Mill, about 30 miles southwest of Lincoln and operated by Dr. Joseph Hoy
Blazer, a dentist, consisted of several wooden buildings spread out along the north bank of the Tularosa, a shallow, 10- foot-wide stream that provided power to run the saws. Trees were cut from nearby mountains, dragged to the mill and sawed into building planks. The area was leased to the federal government and served as headquarters for the Mescalero Indian Agency, with Frederick Godfroy in charge. Government cattle used to provide beef for the Indians grazed nearby. Blazer, with the help of his son and hired hands, operated the mill. He also occasionally practiced dentistry and served as postmaster.
Blazer had built a two-story adobe house large enough to shelter the entire community in the event of an Indian attack, but it was now serving as the agency building and was occupied by the Godfroys. In the back was a large room that served as a store. The front of the building faced south and contained a restaurant operated by Clara Godfroy, wife of the agent. Below the big house (agency) were a scattering of one-story adobes, one of which Dr. Blazer was using as his house. He may have had an office there, although some accounts say that he reserved a room in the northwest corner of the big house as his office.
Early on Thursday morning, April 4, Roberts arrived at Blazer’s Mill. He rode a mule and led a packhorse carrying his few possessions. Roberts was leaving the area and stopped at the mill’s post office to pick up his check. Blazer invited his friend Roberts to sit and visit. The check hadn’t arrived yet. While the two were drinking coffee, a Mescalero Apache who had been herding cattle a short distance away arrived to report that a gang of men had killed one of the government steers and cooked a portion of it. From the Apache’s description of the men, Blazer recognized them as McSween’s Regulators.
Blazer anticipated that the gang would eventually come to the mill and suggested to Roberts that, because his name was on their warrant, he should leave. Roberts told Blazer that he was on his way to Las Cruces and that his mail could be forwarded there. Roberts mounted, rode back up the trail to where he had tied his pack horse, and started out toward Las Cruces, about 100 miles to the southwest.
Roberts had been on the trail for about an hour when he spotted the Regulators riding toward the mill. While hiding among some trees, he recognized Billy the Kid, Charlie Bowdre, Dick Brewer and others. He rode on. About 20 minutes later, he saw the buckboard carrying mail to the post office. Believing his check was on the buckboard, he turned and rode back up the trail to Blazer’s Mill. It proved to be a costly mistake, though exactly what transpired at the mill continues to be a subject of debate.
Following the killing of Brady, the Regulators decided to abandon Lincoln until things cooled down. While staying clear of town, they scoured the countryside in search of other members of the posse that killed Tunstall. They learned that Roberts planned to go to Blazer’s Mill, so they rode there. The party, consisting of the Kid, Bowdre, Middleton, McNab, Brown, Brewer, Waite, Doc Scurlock, Stephen Stevens, John Scroggins, Frank Coe, George Coe (Frank’s cousin) and seven others, arrived at the mill around 11 a.m. on Thursday. Blazer regarded the men as troublemakers, but greeted them cordially and arranged to have a meal prepared.
After dismounting, Brewer asked Blazer to make certain their horses were fed. Summoning his teenage son, Almer, along with two of his friends, Si Maxwell and Willie Pitts, Blazer instructed the boys to take the mounts across the creek and place them in the corral south of the big house. The Regulators took their rifles from the saddle scabbards, entered the house and seated themselves at the long wooden table where they were served lunch.
By the time Roberts arrived at the edge of a ridge that overlooked the valley and the mill, everything appeared quiet. He could see neither the newly arrived horses in the corral nor the men in the restaurant. Relieved, he assumed the Regulators had ridden on past the mill. He tied his packhorse to a tree and rode his mule down the slope toward the house. As he crossed the creek, Roberts stopped to chat with the three boys, who saw no reason to mention the horses or the men in the house.
Roberts rode up to the southwest corner of the house, dismounted and tied his mule to the hitching post. He was aware of Blazer’s preference that visitors leave their guns outside, so he unbuckled the cartridge belt holding his pistol and hung it on the saddle horn. He left his rifle hanging in the scabbard. Roberts was striding toward the house when he spied several rifles leaning against an inside wall of the restaurant. He paused a moment, then heard someone near the front door yell, “Here’s Roberts!” Roberts turned and ran back to the mule and retrieved his rifle. As he did so, he spotted the three boys playing near the creek and paused long enough to warn them to get away.
Carrying his six-shot carbine, Roberts anticipated the Regulators coming out of the restaurant and around the corner, so he stepped back toward the house and placed his back against the west wall. Instead, Brewer told Frank Coe, an old friend of Roberts, to ask him to surrender. The two men talked for several minutes and Roberts was reported to state: “No, never alive. The Kid is with you and will kill me on sight.” The week before, Roberts apparently had tried to shoot Billy the Kid as he left the home of a friend in the town of San Patricio. The Kid had sworn he would take revenge and kill Roberts at the first opportunity. Roberts also knew what the Regulators had done to Morton and Baker. Roberts, according to Frank Coe, also said: “If it was you, George Coe and Brewer, I would surrender to you. But there is the Kid and Bowdre, and if we had got them last week we would have killed them, and I won’t surrender.”
When it became apparent that Frank Coe was having no success getting Roberts to surrender, Brewer ordered Middleton, Bowdre and George Coe to arrest him. As the three men approached, Bowdre told Roberts to raise his hands. In response, Roberts screamed, “No!” and fired his rifle at him. The bullet struck Bowdre’s belt buckle, knocking him to the ground, then ricocheted off and shattered George Coe’s trigger finger, rendering it useless thereafter. Most accounts say that Roberts and Bowdre fired at the same time. Bowdre, according to Frank Coe, “shot [Roberts] through from one side to the other. The dust flew from his clothes from both sides.” Middleton was stunned into inaction, and while he stood motionless, Roberts shot him in the chest.
The other members of the gang, on hearing shots as they exited the house, hastened to take cover. Roberts, cradling his rifle and most likely wounded, retreated. Most accounts say that he backed along the wall and into the recessed doorway of Dr. Blazer’s office in the agency building, firing three more shots as he went. Historian Frederick Nolan, however, suggests in his 1998 book The West of Billy the Kid that “while the confrontation took place outside the agency building, Roberts retreated downhill, firing as he went, until he reached the shelter of the one-story adobe.” In any case, one bullet struck the handle of Doc Scurlock’s holstered pistol and ran down his leg, while another shaved Billy the Kid’s arm. The Kid, recalled Frank Coe, “backed out as it was too hot there for him.”
Billy the Kid had his own story to tell about Blazer’s Mill, which he did three years later, in April 1881. According to his account of the fight, he came out of the restaurant and noticed Roberts’ pistol hanging from the saddle. Knowing the kind of rifle Roberts carried held only six shots and that he never carried a shell in the chamber, the Kid deduced the old outlaw was out of ammunition. He had the advantage, so the Kid turned a corner and slipped along the wall toward the doorway in which Roberts stood. Only a few feet away, the Kid fired, his bullet passing through a door facing, striking Roberts in the hip and burying in his stomach.
Having been badly wounded by either Bowdre (most likely) or Billy the Kid (if he is to be believed), Roberts opened the door to Blazer’s office (whether in the big house or in the one-story adobe) and staggered inside. He spotted Blazer’s single-shot .45- .70 Springfield rifle, grabbed it and a box of cartridges, shoved a mattress against the door, and rested on it while waiting for a target to appear.
While Roberts was positioning himself inside the office, Brewer ran across the creek, circled the corral, and stationed himself behind a pile of firewood approximately 100 yards away. Brewer thought it a fine vantage point from which he could fire into the office. He rose up and sent a bullet into the doorway. Roberts looked in the direction of the shot and oriented the sights of his rifle toward a spot where he saw a puff of smoke. A moment later, Brewer rose up for another shot. Roberts fired, striking Brewer in the left eye and killing him instantly.
The Kid tried to get Blazer to enter the office and urge Roberts to come out, but the dentist was busy attending to the three wounded men instead. Not willing to tempt another shot from Roberts, the Regulators retrieved their horses and left. They took Roberts’ mule and packhorse and rode away without paying for their meal. Brewer was left lying by the woodpile.
Roberts lay in great pain against the mattress just inside the office doorway, unaware the gang had departed and that his friend Blazer was afraid to enter the office. Blazer called out to him several times but received no reply. Finally, Blazer summoned Johnny Ryan, a handyman employed at the mill, since Ryan also knew Roberts. Buckshot motioned for Ryan to enter, and Blazer followed. The two men made Roberts as comfortable as possible, and Blazer sent one of his workers to Fort Stanton to fetch a physician.
Late that evening, the post surgeon arrived and worked on Roberts in the light of a candle held by Blazer. He told Blazer the bullet entered just above the left hip and ranged downward, destroying vital organs and opening an artery. He said Roberts would not live through the night.
As the doctor was examining him, Roberts began talking. He said he had made a big mistake by returning to the mill. He provided an account of the brief gun battle and told Dr. Blazer that he had been shot by Billy the Kid. But Roberts could have been delirious, or he could have been guessing. Frank Coe, who claimed he took no part in the fight, was a credible witness and his word carries some authority. He said it was Bowdre’s bullet that inflicted the mortal wound, and most historians agree. Much later, in the 1920s, Coe told historian J. Evetts Haley that
Roberts had made his last stand against the Regulators in Blazer’s one-story adobe, not in the office at the big house (agency). Roberts died shortly after noon the following day. He was placed in a coffin that was constructed that morning and buried on the top of a nearby low hill next to Dick Brewer. No markers were erected. Middleton recovered enough from his chest wound to continue fighting with the Regulators, though the bullet lodged in his lung, and that might have had something to do with his death about eight years later. George Coe’s mangled forefinger and thumb had to be amputated.
Billy the Kid, Charlie Bowdre, John Middleton, Doc Scurlock, George Coe and several others were indicted for the killing of Buckshot Roberts. In late March 1881, the Kid—who had been captured at Stinking Springs, New Mexico Territory, on December 21, 1880 (Bowdre died in that fight)— came to trial in Mesilla and pleaded not guilty. Defense attorney Ira Leonard then argued that the event took place on private property and that the federal government had no jurisdiction. The indictment was thrown out, but this allowed the court to try the Kid for the murder of Sheriff Brady. The Kid maintained his innocence in that killing as well, but on April 13, 1881, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
The most famous participants in what has been called the Fight at Blazer’s Mill did not add materially to their fame and notoriety as a result of what occurred there. Though he died in the process, the unlikely hero of the brief gunfight was the heretofore little-known Buckshot Roberts, who single-handedly took on New Mexico’s most feared outlaws and gave a decent accounting of himself in the process.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.