‘Men with the instincts of a manhunter could take on a rare challenge remaining in Arizona Territory. Even in the early 1900s bank and train robbers, murderers, rustlers and any other lawbreaker with a fast horse stood a reasonable chance of remaining free from arrest in the vast sweep of sparsely settled land’
Half an hour before midnight on October 23, 1904, Joe Bostwick slipped through the rear door of the Palace Saloon in Tucson, Arizona Territory. His face was shrouded in a red bandana, complete with eyeholes, and he brandished a long-barreled Colt .45. “Hands up!” he shouted.
Four regulars were on duty in the Palace: a bartender, a craps dealer, a roulette dealer and a porter. There were four customers, one of whom, M.D. Beede, slipped out the front door onto Congress Street. Perhaps not noticing the missing customer, the masked desperado nervously ordered, “Throw up your hands and march into the side room.” As the men filed by, the jittery bandit snapped, “Hold ’em up higher—hold up your digits.” Then Bostwick edged toward the craps table, where money lay scattered beside the dice.
Outside on Congress Street, Beede spotted an officer wearing the star badge of an Arizona Ranger. Sergeant Harry Wheeler had just emerged from Wanda’s Restaurant. “Don’t go in there,” Beede said when the Ranger turned toward the Palace. “There’s a holdup going on!”
“All right,” Wheeler calmly replied. “That’s what I’m here for.”
The sergeant pulled his single-action Colt .45 and stepped to the front door of the saloon. Bostwick spotted him and whirled to fire his revolver, but Wheeler triggered the first shot. The heavy slug grazed Bostwick’s forehead above the right eye. Bostwick fired wildly, then Wheeler drilled him in the right side of the chest. Mortally wounded, the stricken bandit groaned and collapsed to the floor.
When interviewed by a reporter for The Tucson Citizen, Wheeler commented: “I am sorry that this happened, but it was either his life or mine, and if I hadn’t been just a little quicker on the draw than he was, I might be in his position now. Under the circumstances, if I had to do it over again, I think I would do exactly the same thing.” Indeed, Wheeler did exactly the same thing—with exactly the same results—in 1907 and again in 1908. And so did other fast-shooting men who wore the star during the brief existence of the early 20th-century Arizona Ranger company.
The Arizona Territorial Legislature created the Rangers in 1901 (various short-lived ranger forces had come and gone in the territory during the 19th century), more than a decade after the 1890 U.S. census had pronounced the frontier closed. For more than seven years Arizona Rangers rode across mountains and deserts in pursuit of cattle rustlers and horse thieves, and, blazing away with Colts and Winchesters, shot it out with desperados in saloons, dusty streets and desolate badlands.
Outlawry was rampant in the territory at the dawn of the 20th century, and Congress consequently refused to consider statehood. Arizona cattlemen, mine owners, railroad officials and newspaper editors pressured Territorial Governor Nathan Oakes Murphy to combat lawlessness with a special force modeled on the famed Texas Rangers. As early as October 1898 an editorial in The Phoenix Gazette decried rustling and proclaimed the need for a band of Rangers: “When such conditions exist, a company of paid ‘Rangers’ are required to stamp out and destroy the characters that bring about such a state of affairs. Let us have a Territorial Ranger Service.”
In early 1901 Governor Murphy presented a Ranger bill to the Republican-dominated 21st Territorial Legislature, which quickly enacted it. The company would be launched on September 1. Murphy asked cattleman Burt Mossman, who had helped frame the Ranger Act, to serve as founding captain. The act authorized a 14-man force—one captain, one sergeant and 12 privates. Two years later the Legislature expanded the force to 26 men—one captain, one lieutenant, four sergeants and 20 privates.
Captain Mossman recruited outdoorsmen for his force—men who could ride and trail and shoot, men who had experience as cowboys or peace officers. Murphy questioned some of the captain’s selections. “Now, governor,” replied Mossman, “if you think I can go out in these mountains and catch train robbers and cattle rustlers with a bunch of Sunday school teachers, you are very much mistaken.”
Men with the instincts of a manhunter could take on a rare challenge remaining in Arizona Territory. Even in the early 1900s bank and train robbers, murderers, rustlers and any other lawbreaker with a fast horse stood a reasonable chance of remaining free from arrest in the vast sweep of sparsely settled land. Rangers were given carte blanche to pursue badmen, authorized to make arrests anywhere in the territory. A Ranger could pin on a badge, saddle up and, in the righteous cause of justice and the territorial statutes, ride up into the mountains and across deserts in pursuit of society’s enemies. And just like in the old days on the frontier, these early 20th-century lawmen sometimes had to match bullet for bullet.
Two of the first Rangers to enlist, Carlos Tafolla and Duane Hamblin, found themselves in a deadly gun battle within weeks of joining the new company. Privates Tafolla and Hamblin had joined a posse in pursuit of the Bill Smith Gang. The men trailed the rustlers into the rugged mountain wilderness of eastern Arizona Territory. At sundown on October 8 the lawmen moved into position to attack the outlaw camp in a gorge at high elevation. Tafolla, Hamblin and Bill Maxwell, an excellent scout, approached the camp from the front in open snow. Maxwell called out an order to surrender.
“All right,” answered Smith. “Which way do you want us to come out?”
“Come right out this way,” directed Maxwell.
Hamblin flattened onto the snow as Smith walked toward the lawmen, dragging a new .303 Savage rifle behind him. Smith suddenly brought up the lever-action repeater and opened fire from a distance of 40 feet. Tafolla went down, shot twice through the torso, while Maxwell, hit in the forehead, died on the spot. Smith darted back to camp as gunfire exploded from both sides. Tafolla gamely worked his Winchester.
Hamblin moved to the outlaw remuda and scattered the mounts, putting the gang afoot. Two outlaws were wounded, and Smith led a retreat into the surrounding timber. With a sudden mountain nightfall the outlaws escaped on foot.
Back in the clearing Tafolla lay on his back, begging for water. Before he died, the Ranger pulled a silver dollar from his pants pocket. “Give this dollar to my wife,” he gasped. “It, and the month’s wages coming to me, will be all she’ll ever have.” Tafolla left three children and his poor widow. His wages for less than a month’s service totaled only $53.15. The Legislature voted Mrs. Tafolla a small pension, and Mossman dutifully brought her the silver dollar.
Mossman resigned after one year to return to the cattle business. The new captain was Tom Rynning, a cavalry veteran and lieutenant with the Rough Riders in Cuba. With his military background, Captain Rynning imposed training and marksmanship practice.
The Ranger Act required that each man carry a single-action Colt .45 revolver and an 1895 Winchester, the first lever-action repeater to use a box magazine instead of the old tubular magazine. Invented by John Browning, America’s foremost genius in arms design, the Model 1895 carried five rounds in the box, with the chamber accommodating a sixth.
Rynning moved Ranger headquarters from Bisbee, a thriving mining town near the Mexican border, to Douglas, a new mining boomtown to the southeast and smack on the border. The Cowboy’s Home Saloon was the center for drinking, gambling and dancing in Douglas. One of the three men who ran the saloon was Lon Bass, a Texan who resented the presence of Rangers and who threatened to kill Private W.W. Webb the next time he entered the Cowboy’s Home.
On Sunday evening, February 8, 1903, the town dives were doing a roaring business when shots went off near the Cowboy’s Home. Privates Webb and Lonnie McDonald heard the gunfire and hustled to the scene.
As the Rangers entered the Cowboy’s Home, Bass sighted them from a rear room where he was dealing monte. He promptly stormed into the main saloon, ordering Webb off the premises and threatening to “beat the face off him.”
Webb responded by whipping his Colt .45 from its holster, cocking it and firing point-blank at Bass. The bullet spun the saloonkeeper around, but Webb thumbed back his hammer and fired again. The second round also went true, hurling Bass to the floor.
“Oh, my God!” he gasped as he went down. Both slugs had torn into Bass’s torso, and one apparently struck his heart. He died on the floor. A few feet away McDonald also sagged to the floor, struck in the midsection by a stray bullet, perhaps a slug that had passed through Bass.
Captain Rynning and Private Frank Wheeler (no relation to Harry Wheeler), patrolling the streets on horseback, quickly arrived at the saloon. So did a couple of other Rangers, along with Town Constable Dayton Graham, who had signed on as the first Ranger sergeant in 1901. Graham arrested Webb, but since there was no jail in Douglas, the constable conveniently directed the Rangers to take their comrade into custody. (Webb did eventually stand trial, but a jury found him not guilty in June 1903.)
Physicians probed unsuccessfully for the slug that struck McDonald. Douglas had as many hospitals as jails, so his fellows carried the bandaged lawman to the two-room adobe that served as Ranger headquarters. Captain Rynning’s house was nearby, and his wife tended the wounded McDonald. The next morning she was horrified at the breakfast the Rangers had cooked for her patient: “a big round steak with a lot of greasy spuds and some gravy that a fork could stand up in.” Instead, Margaret Rynning fed him soft-boiled eggs and other light fare, and McDonald slowly recovered.
One of Rynning’s most notable recruits was Sergeant Jeff Kidder, a superb pistol shot who practiced incessantly with his silver-plated Colt. 45. Normally stationed in Nogales, he was called to Douglas to help control troublemakers on New Year’s Eve 1906. That night Kidder and a local peace officer were patrolling in the vicinity of the railroad roundhouse when they encountered local saloonkeeper Tom T. Woods, who emerged from a rear door and scurried through the rain across the railroad tracks.
“Hold on there!” shouted Kidder. “We want to look at you.” Woods instead broke into a run, then turned and fired a pistol shot at Kidder. The Ranger quickly drew his Colt and blasted out three rounds. One slug slammed into Wood’s right eye, dropping him on the spot. He died later that night.
Another deadly Ranger was Sergeant James T. “Shorty” Holmes, who was stationed at Roosevelt, northeast of Phoenix, where the Roosevelt Dam was under construction. On October 31, 1905, Holmes intercepted Bernardo Arviso, a bootlegger suspected of selling liquor to Indians. Arviso tried to fight his way past Holmes, sparking a furious pistol duel. A government teamster named Bagley tried to help Holmes but caught a bullet in the arm from the bootlegger. The Ranger fired back with lethal aim, killing Arviso on the spot.
Within four months Holmes again engaged in a fatal gunfight near Roosevelt. On February 18, 1906, he clashed with an Apache known as Matze Ta 55 and shot the outlaw to death. In 1907 Holmes was in action again, this time trading shots with smugglers. During his years as a Ranger, Holmes never suffered a wound, and he was cited for distinguished service in the 1906 and 1907 engagements.
Arizona malefactors became wary of the sure-shooting Holmes. In 1907 a man named Baldwin murdered a Mrs. Morris and her daughter near Roosevelt. A couple of months later Holmes intercepted the murderer just outside town. Baldwin surrendered to Holmes, but the Ranger—never kindly disposed toward murderers—beat him over the head with a frying pan. Then he tied a rope around Baldwin’s neck, mounted his horse and spurred away, dragging the prisoner into Roosevelt.
In late June 1907 Ranger Frank Wheeler, by then a sergeant, rode for five days through the desert of southern Arizona Territory in pursuit of rustlers Lee Bentley and James Kerrick. Yuma County Deputy Sheriff Johnny Cameron and two Indian guides accompanied the sergeant. Saturday, June 29, was the worst day—35 miles of blazing heat through cacti and blistering sands. “Our horses went without water the entire day,” reported Wheeler, “and the water in our canteens was so hot we couldn’t even drink it.”
The next morning the guides found the outlaw camp at Sheep Dung Tanks, about three miles west of the mining settlement of Ajo. Approaching furtively on foot, Wheeler and Cameron found six horses staked out, while the two rustlers slept, rifles close by their sides. The officers readied their own rifles, and then Wheeler called out a command to surrender in the name of the law.
Both rustlers scrambled up, groping for their rifles. Wheeler and Cameron again directed them to give up, but Bentley raised his weapon and triggered a shot. For a moment the flat explosions of Winchesters broke the desert silence as each man brought his rifle into play. Kerrick, a killer and ex-convict, fired a shot at Cameron, but the deputy dropped his antagonist with the first round from his .30–30.
Wheeler emptied the five-shot magazine of his Model 1895 into Bentley. The first slug punched into Bentley’s belly, but the outlaw held his kneeling position. The Ranger pumped three more .30–40 bullets into Bentley’s torso. Yet somehow the stricken rustler stayed up, gamely trying to get his gun back into action. Wheeler’s final shot drilled into Bentley’s left temple, ripping through his head and out his right ear. Bentley fell face forward, dead when he hit the ground. Wheeler later testified that Bentley “showed more nerve under fire than he had ever seen displayed by a man before.”
Wheeler and Cameron cautiously walked over to the fallen rustlers, but both were dead. The Rangers collected several new Winchesters from the camp, threw the two bodies across a pair of stolen horses, packed everything else that needed to be hauled out and headed north. By the time they reached Ten Miles Well, a journey of 25 miles, the corpses had swollen badly in the heat. The officers sent word to Sentinel to wire for the Pima County coroner, but he refused to come. The justice of the peace at Silver Bell, who had jurisdiction over the Ajo area, also refused to come.
While waiting for Sheriff Nabor Pacheco, Wheeler and Cameron fashioned two rudimentary coffins and lowered the bodies into temporary graves. But the sheriff did not get there until Monday afternoon, and even though Pacheco brought ice, by then the bodies had decomposed beyond recognition.
Harry Wheeler, who had enlisted as a private during the Ranger expansion of 1903, soon earned promotion to sergeant, then lieutenant. In 1907 Tom Rynning was appointed superintendent of Yuma Territorial Prison, and Lieutenant Wheeler was elevated to Ranger captain. Of 107 men who served as Arizona Rangers, Wheeler was the only one who held all four ranks: private, sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He was a superlative lawman.
Harry Cornwall Wheeler was the son of a West Point graduate and colonel in the U.S. Army. Harry grew up on a series of military posts, learning to shoot on the post ranges and becoming an expert marksman with rifle and pistol. Enlisting in the U.S. Cavalry, Wheeler rose to the rank of sergeant. His last duty post was Fort Grant, Arizona Territory. Leaving the Army in 1902, he joined the Ranger company the next year. He brought to the Rangers a strong sense of duty, meticulous administrative skills, a love for fieldwork and his extraordinary gun skills—as he proved to holdup man Joe Bostwick in Tucson in October 1904.
Lieutenant Wheeler was in Benson, north of Tombstone, when he engaged in one of the great mano a mano duels in Western history. On February 28, 1907, Wheeler was made aware of a life-endangering love triangle. En route to town by train, a newly arrived couple at Benson’s Virginia Hotel had sighted the woman’s former sweetheart, J.A. Tracy. The jilted lover had pursued the couple to Benson, arriving on a night train. Presenting Lieutenant Wheeler a photograph of Tracy, the couple appealed to the Ranger for help.
Wheeler left the hotel and crossed to the depot. He found Tracy sitting on the steps of a dining car, but as the Ranger approached, the man’s former lover emerged from the hotel with her new beau. Tracy jumped up cursing and pulled a revolver from his pocket. “Hold on there!” barked Wheeler. “I arrest you. Give me that gun.”
A furious pistol duel ensued. Wheeler advanced relentlessly, firing methodically and ordering his quarry to surrender. Tracy’s third shot wounded Wheeler in the upper left thigh near the groin, but the Ranger drilled him four times, in the stomach, neck, arm and chest. Tracy tumbled onto his back. “I am all in,” he gasped. “My gun is empty.”
Wheeler dropped his Colt, having fired his five rounds (many Westerners carried only “five beans in the wheel,” leaving the hammer at rest over an empty chamber for safety). The wounded officer limped forward to secure his prisoner. But Tracy had two bullets left and more cartridges in a pocket. He treacherously opened fire again, striking Wheeler in the left heel. The fearless Ranger began hurling rocks at the downed man, whose revolver finally clicked on an empty cylinder. “I am all in,” Tracy repeated. “My gun is empty.”
But Tracy still refused to surrender his gun to Wheeler. Men in the gathering crowd threatened the gunman, but the bleeding Wheeler managed to calm onlookers and disarm Tracy. Someone brought a chair for the wounded Ranger. “Give it to him,” said Wheeler, gesturing to Tracy. “He needs it more than I do.”
Wheeler turned over Tracy to a Benson peace officer, then extended his right hand to the wounded man.
“Well,” said Wheeler, “it was a great fight while it lasted, wasn’t it, old man?”
“I’ll get you yet,” muttered Tracy with a hint of a smile. The two men shook hands.
Wheeler then retrieved his revolver and limped away to seek a physician. Authorities decided to send the grievously wounded Tracy to a hospital in Tucson and placed him on a cot in the baggage car. The train had not gone 10 miles down the tracks before he breathed his last. Wheeler later learned that J.A. Tracy had been wanted for two separate murders in Nevada, with a $500 reward on his head. One of his victims was the brother of former Ranger Dick Hickey. Nevada officials offered Wheeler the reward, but he promptly turned it down. Wheeler would have no part of blood money, instead urging that the $500 be given to the widowed Mrs. Hickey.
As a sergeant Harry Wheeler had killed Joe Bostwick, as a lieutenant he had killed J.A. Tracy, and in May 1908 as a captain he killed George Arnett. Considered by Wheeler “the worst man in Cochise County,” Arnett for months had been stealing horses in the county and driving them across the border to sell in Mexico. Acting on a tip, Wheeler enlisted Deputy Sheriff George Humm to help set a trap in a canyon east of Bisbee.
On the fifth night of their vigil, the two lawmen heard a horseman approach. The rider was leading another horse. As the rider approached within 20 feet, Wheeler and Humm each beamed a bull’s-eye lamp at the man later determined to be Arnett, ordering him to surrender.
Wheeler had leveled his revolver, and when Arnett snapped off a shot, the Ranger captain instantly triggered his .45. He heard Humm’s revolver go off beside him. The rider bolted, firing a second pistol shot before disappearing over a ridge. After retrieving their own horses, Wheeler and Humm searched the area by lamplight. Finding Arnett’s two horses, they realized the outlaw probably had been injured.
Within an hour they found Arnett’s corpse no more than a quarter of a mile from the site of the shooting. The outlaw had been hit twice. At dawn authorities brought a coroner’s jury to the rocky canyon, and an inquest was conducted that afternoon. “I have heard a relative state that Arnett had said he would never submit to arrest,” testified Wheeler. The jury exonerated Wheeler and Humm, finding it “the general opinion of the public that a dangerous man has met his end.”
In April 1908, the month before Captain Wheeler bested Arnett, Sergeant Jeff Kidder was not so fortunate in a gunfight just across the border. Wheeler had moved Ranger headquarters to the border town of Naco and ordered his men not to cross into Mexico. But when Kidder rode into Naco from his post at Nogales, Wheeler was away, and the sergeant—his Colt .45 concealed in his waistband beneath his coat—sauntered with friends into Mexican Naco.
In a cantina Kidder had trouble with a senorita. Two members of the policía hurried to the commotion, and one officer gutshot Kidder. The wounded Ranger palmed his Colt and dropped both officers with leg wounds. Kidder then staggered outside and reached the border fence a quarter mile away. Under fire he wounded the chief of police, who was the brother of the officer who shot Kidder. Once out of ammunition, the Ranger surrendered.
The chief and his men dragged Kidder to jail, where they robbed him and roughed him up. Although permitted visitors from the American side, including physicians, he died 30 hours after being shot. Jeff Kidder was 33.
That summer Ranger Billy Speed had a confrontation with hard-driving ex-convict William F. Downing, a terror in Willcox, Arizona Territory, where Speed was stationed. Downing, who toted a revolver in his hip pocket, ran the Free and Easy Saloon and clashed openly with many local men. Although threatened repeatedly by Downing, Speed was not intimidated, and he remained mindful of Wheeler’s admonition that “if anyone must be hurt, I do not want it to be the Ranger.” Kidder’s recent death was on Wheeler’s mind, and he wrote Speed “to take no chance with this man in any official dealing you may have with him.” Wheeler left no doubt as to his meaning: “I hereby direct you to prepare yourself to meet this man…and upon his least or slightest attempt to do you harm, I want you to kill him.”
On the night of August 4 Downing hit and then gouged the eyes of saloon girl Cuco Leal, who lived and worked in the Free and Easy. She swore out a warrant, and Constable Bud Snow—a former Ranger—sought Billy Speed’s help. Speed advised they wait until morning. Early on the 5th the still drunk Downing emerged from his saloon shouting crude threats against Speed and Snow. The lawmen armed themselves and split up to corral Downing.
As Speed turned down an alley, a bystander shouted that Downing was coming up the street. Winchester at his shoulder, the Ranger emerged and ordered Downing to throw up his hands. The saloonkeeper raised his arms and walked unsteadily toward Speed. When he was less than 30 feet from the Ranger, Downing suddenly groped with his left hand at his hip pocket, apparently forgetting he had left his revolver at the Free and Easy. Still he kept advancing, and Speed again shouted for him to throw up his arms.
Left with little choice, Speed finally squeezed the trigger of his Model 1895 Winchester. The .30–40 slug ripped into Downing’s right breast, exiting beneath his right shoulder blade. The impact threw him onto his back, and within minutes he was dead. Captain Wheeler took the first train to Willcox, where a coroner’s jury had ruled Ranger Speed “perfectly justified” in killing Downing. Wheeler reported to Governor Joseph H. Kibbey, “This is the first time I have ever known a killing to meet absolute general rejoiceing [sic].”
The deaths of Downing and Arnett in 1908 left no other prominent badmen in Arizona Territory. The Rangers had relentlessly hounded most other criminals. For instance, during the fiscal year of 1904–05 they made 1,052 arrests. But by late 1908 the company had virtually achieved its goal of cleaning up the territory.
Harry Wheeler’s report for the month of August 1908 revealed the Rangers had made fewer than two-dozen arrests. He reported, “The whole country seems remarkably quiet, and scarcely any crimes are being committed anywhere.” With obvious disappointment, he added, “There has been absolutely no trouble of any kind, and I am getting tired of so much goodness, as are all the men.”
The Rangers had worked themselves out of a job. Several Arizona sheriffs complained about the authority Rangers exercised within their jurisdictions. Many Democrats, resentful that the Ranger company was a creation of Republicans, clamored that to continue it would be a waste of funds. In February 1909 the Democrat-controlled Territorial Legislature abruptly disbanded the company—with Rangers still in the field. Wheeler had not been permitted to testify on behalf of his beloved Rangers.
From late 1901 until early 1909 the hard-riding, quick-triggered band of riders had brought into a new century the crime-fighting traditions of Wild Bill Hickok, Pat Garrett, Commodore Perry Owens and other members of an earlier generation of frontier lawmen. The gunfights presented here were the ones with fatal consequences, but there were many other shooting incidents involving Rangers. While there was occasional gunplay during Arizona’s early statehood period, the Rangers had claimed the last sustained gunfighting adventure of the no-longer-so-Wild West.
Texas State Historian Bill O’Neal is an award-winning author of many books and magazine articles about the Old West. For further reading see two of his books: The Arizona Rangers (1987) and Captain Harry Wheeler, Arizona Lawman (2003).