Texas John Slaughter and His Guardian Angel
The Lawman & His Guardian Angel Who Cleaned Up Tombstone Territory
By Brad Steiger
Contrary to popular Western mythology, Wyatt Earp did not clean up Tombstone Territory. The controversial Mr. Earp, in spite of his secure position in the legends of the West as a gallant lawman, was a gambler, a racketeer, and a part-time road agent who made a profit by dealing on both sides of the law. The fiction of Earp as the virtuous defender of law and order was largely the creation of Ned Buntline, a prolific dime-novel writer.
When Wyatt, his brothers, Morgan and Virgil, and his pal, Doc Holliday, left Tombstone after the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, the Arizona community was far from “clean.” If anything, crime was more rampant than before the Earp regime. The saga of Wyatt Earp epitomizes the essence of the marvelous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When legend conflicts with reality, print the legend.
The man who pinned on a tin star and really mopped up the territory was “Texas” John Slaughter. Slaughter was quick with his wits, fast on the draw with his pearl-handled revolver and repeating shotgun, and doggedly determined to make Tombstone a decent city. Texas John had one very important advantage over all the previous lawmen who had tackled Tombstone and failed–he was absolutely fearless because he had a very active guardian angel and the promise that he could not be killed by an outlaw’s bullet.
“I’ve got a guardian angel who protects me,” he would assure well-meaning friends when they sought to caution him about his reckless and daring life-style. “My angel keeps these owl hoots and gunslicks from even denting me. He has told me that I’ll die in bed when I’m good and ready, and not by the hand of some no good outlaw.”
Slaughter was born in Louisiana in 1841. He served as a Confederate solider, then, after the war, he went to Texas, joined the Rangers and tracked down cattle rustlers and horse thieves. In the early 1870s, he acquired his own spread in the Pecos country. Slaughter served as his own trail boss driving his herds across western Texas and eastern New Mexico, driving off any rustler foolish enough to tangle with him.
Slaughter was a slight man, standing five-foot-six, but all who came up against him were frozen by what they described as his cold, mesmerizing eyes. His only companion or “sidekick” in frontier parlance, was Jim, described in the old records only as a “giant Negro.”
Sometime during his stay in Texas, Slaughter married, but his first wife’s name and her fate is lost to history. Some say that she was captured by Comanches and was killed before John could rescue her.
In 1877, after the big silver strike at Tombstone, Slaughter decided to move his herd to the southeastern corner of Arizona. As he and Jim passed through Tularosa, New Mexico, Slaughter sighted Viola Howell, a local woman known for her beauty. According to those who witnessed the courtship, the confident Slaughter spoke only one word to Viola: “Come.”
As Texas John, his new bride, Jim, and the Slaughter cowhands continued on their way to Arizona, they found that they had run afoul of the infamous outlaw Bad Man Gallagher from Bitter Creek, a gunslinger with thirteen notches on his gunstock and absolutely no regard for the value of human life. Gallagher confronted the Slaughter bunch and demanded one hundred steers to be allowed to pass.
Texas John only laughed and said, “Not on your life, Aloysius. Be on your way!”
Slaughter had known Gallagher in the old days when he was a Texas Ranger and was aware of the first name that “Bad Man” kept secret even from members of his gang. Gallagher hated the name and rode off roaring damnation on all of Slaughter’s cowboys, Jim, the beautiful Viola, and, of course, Texas John himself.
According to the legend of Texas John, the only time his guardian angel ever appeared in human form occurred a few days later when a horseman appeared literally out of nowhere and rode up to camp to warn Slaughter that Bad Man Gallagher was waiting in ambush. Since the stranger said that Bad Man was alone without his gang, Texas John set out by himself and eliminated the menace that lay in wait for him.
In 1879, the Slaughters established their new ranch on the San Pedro River. Later, they moved to San Bernardino in the extreme southeastern corner of what would become Cochise County.
Once, when Texas John was riding his famous gray horse on his way to buy some cattle, he received a warning “buzz” from his guardian angel, which told him that he was approaching danger. Whenever he got the signal from his invisible guide, he never argued.
He sat atop his horse for a time, assessing the message he had received. Danger lay ahead, the communication assured him, so he decided to ride into the town of Tubac. Here he visited with a storekeeper until his angel sent him the “all-clear” signal.
Later that day, three gunslingers who worked for Curly Bill Brocius, who had become Texas John’s archenemy, rode into Tubac. Over beers in the saloon, they were overheard to be cursing their bad luck. It seemed that Curly Bill had learned of Slaughter’s cattle-buying trip and had sent the three of them to lie in ambush for him.
“We squatted out there in that boiling sun until we felt like dried-out venison,” one of them growled to a local tough. “Curly Bill is going to be mad, but we ain’t no Apaches. We couldn’t lay there in that sun waiting for Texas John until Christmas!”
One night Slaughter and Viola had attended a social function at a neighbor’s and were driving home after dark in their buckboard. Viola saw her husband cock his head in the bright moonlight.
“What do you hear, John?” she asked.
Slaughter handed her the reins. “My angel just sent me the buzz,” he told her. “We are going to be a whole lot safer if you drive and I have my gun in my hand.”
Viola Slaughter had barely finished speaking when a horseman emerged from the shadows, and the angry features of rustler Ike Clanton were distinguishable in the moonlight. The tough old patriarch of the outlaw clan had sworn to kill the troublesome rancher, and he rode out in front of the buckboard with his revolver already drawn.
But when Ike saw the moonlight glinting off the shotgun in the fast-shooting Slaughter’s hand, he turned his horse and rode on without speaking a word or firing a shot. Ike would live to participate in the controversial gunfight at the OK Corral with the Earps and Holiday. The tough old rustler would survive that shootout, but his brother Billy and two other members of his outlaw gang would not.
In 1888, with a steady flow of gunfighters and outlaws arriving in Tombstone and the surrounding region, the people of Cochise County at last persuaded the successful rancher and fearless gunfighter Texas John Slaughter to become their sheriff.
As far as is recorded, Sheriff Slaughter never led a posse in pursuit of an outlaw or a rustler. It is definitely recorded that he did not trust juries to be fair and just. He knew that the members of any jury would be intimidated by the gangs of the accused.
Slaughter set out after thieves and rustlers with only his angel and Jim as his companions. He would return some days later with the stolen goods, horses, or cattle. He never spoke of the desperados from which he had retrieved the stolen booty. He never admitted killing any of them, but word did circulate that he did put a revolver to their heads and advise them never to return to Cochise County.
In 1897, after his retirement, the fifty-six-year-old ex-sheriff was asked to hunt down a werewolf. The Apache Kid, who had killed at least ten men and kidnapped and raped many women, was said to have acquired the power to shape shift into a wolf through the magic properties of his victims’ blood. Although an army of lawmen had tried to track down the murderer and rapist, his ability to escape every trap and ambush set for him had only added to the belief that he was truly a werewolf.
A elderly retired army officer (sometimes identified as Captain Benton) approached Slaughter and begged for his assistance in tracking down and killing the Apache Kid. A woman, who had been horribly abused and tortured, had managed to escape from the Apache Kid. The monster had eluded Benton for years, and now this woman had brought word where the werewolf was hiding in the Pilares de Torres Mountains of Mexico. If Slaughter, who was known to be an excellent tracker and who was widely known to have supernatural protection, were to accompany him, the Apache Kid could at last be stopped from his horrid crimes.
And so, three old men–Captain Benton, Jim, and Texas John–set out for the Pilares to hunt a vicious werewolf. Three old men and an angel.
Upon his return, Texas John remained true to his code and would not say whether or not the Apache Kid had been removed as a source of murder and terror in the territory. Many years later, however, after he had decided “it would do no harm,” Slaughter admitted that the Apache Kid had been killed after a fierce gun fight.
The lawman did not lose his angelic connection with age. On the evening of May 4, 1921, when Tombstone, the Clantons, the Apache Kid, and Curly Bill had become the stuff of memories, the 80-year-old frontier sheriff received his angel’s danger signal while sitting in his dining room reading the evening paper.
“It was as if I heard my faithful guardian angel screaming right in my ear, ” Slaughter said later. “There was just a bit of the old buzz, then I heard his voice shout at me: ‘Get away from that open window and get your gun!’ “
Puzzled, but ever heedful of the angelic adviser who had consistently gotten him out of tough scrapes, Slaughter set down his newspaper and literally sprang to his feet.
He was in the bedroom buckling on his gun belt. when two shots rang out and killed his foreman, Jes Fisher.
Later, when the four ranch hands involved in the plot were arrested, they confessed that Slaughter was also to have been killed.
One of the conspirators had been drawing a bead on Texas John, who sat reading in front of a window, when Slaughter suddenly jumped to his feet and moved quickly out of sight. Another instant over the newspaper and the old lawman, an easy target in the light from the reading lamp, would have been dead.
“It’s like I’ve always told you,” Slaughter said to his friends. “My guardian angel told me years ago that I would die in bed. Once again he sent the warning in time so that that bushwhacker’s bullet never found me. He isn’t going to let anything happen to me until it is my time to go. “
The time finally came for John Horton Slaughter in 1922, when he passed away-the victim of a stroke, not a gunman’s bullet.