Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Afoot at Johnny Ringo's Death Site

In the southeastern corner of Arizona, along the edge of the Chiricahua wilderness, a massive oak tree grows along the breathtakingly beautiful banks of Turkey Creek.  The tree distinguishes itself by having multiple trunks that form a wide crotch in which, at one time, a flattish stone had been placed as a seat.  One enormous trunk has split off and fallen to the ground, where it remains, slowly returning to the earth.  The tree flourishes in its idyllic setting:  water is plentiful, the air is clear, and the unique history of this specific tree ensures a rare human guardianship.  This is the tree where gunfighter Johnny Ringo was found shot to death 130 years ago.

As with most, if not all, gunfighters, ascertaining the truth about Ringo is an impossible task.  Even the first-hand accounts of those who knew him were called into question, slanted as they were.  The events of Ringo's life are as debatable as the events of his untimely death.  Shaped into a heroic character in books such as Walter Noble Burns' Tombstone, acerbically dismissed in Jack Burrows' deconsecration John Ringo:  The Gunfighter Who Never Was, the actual figure behind the stories assuredly lies somewhere between hero and merely a remarkably unremarkable citizen of the times.

It is certain that, for whatever reason, the memory of Ringo remains sacred to those living in the west today.  From the jeep-tour driver in Cave Creek who changed his own name to Johnny Ringo in homage, to the writer (Burrows) who apparently dedicated decades to research in order to reduce Ringo's legacy to myth, people even today remain fiercely devoted to their view of Ringo's persona.

We walked, this week, the yards from Turkey Creek Road to the huge oak tree where Ringo's body was found.  By the graciousness of the Sanders family who still own the ranch where the death occurred, visitors may quietly and reverently visit the Ringo memorial.  It is not a touristy area; there are no paved lots, no public restrooms, and no gift shops.  Far from it:  there is a dusty road, with just enough room to pull over (not that you'd need to, as rural as the area is); a wire gate that sternly admonishes visitors "No Trespassing," while, a few feet up, a sign reminds us of the "rules," for visiting the site; and a rock-piled gravesite beside a simple historical sign and, of course, the oak tree above.  During our visit, not so much as another vehicle passed by, much less fellow visitors to the gravesite.  It is a site appropriate for a westerner's resting place:  still feral, if not wild; and within feet of that most-precious substance of desert life:  water.

Looking into the azure shallows of Turkey Creek, I couldn't help but think that, if Ringo had indeed committed suicide as the official coroner's report stated, he'd picked an utterly gorgeous location to do so.  His last view would have been one of tranquility, despite any inner turmoil he most certainly felt.  The Chiricahuas to the east are stunning, and although an Apache at the time might have looked at them as safe harbor, and a gunfighter in a bad situation might have viewed them as an inconvenience, if not a hazardous obstacle to his safe escape, both must certainly have recognized their grandeur at the same time.

Ringo, for those who have done little by way of research, was a gambler, cowhand, rustler, and (albeit briefly) a county deputy.  Although the Ringo legend attaches him to the conflict remaining after the shootout by the OK Corral, and he was credited with several unproven gunfights, it is certain that he was affiliated with many of the "elite" gunfighters and history-makers of the 1880's Arizona territory.  Ringo was involved in the Hoodoo Range War in Texas, and indisputably pistol-whipped and shot (but didn't kill) a fellow drinker at a Safford saloon.  His acquaintances included enemies (such as the Earps) to benefactors (for example, Sheriff John Behan) and fellow gunmen and friends (Buckskin Frank Leslie, John Wesley Hardin, Scott Cooley, among others).  Although the extent of his involvement in various conflicts remains unclear, he certainly knew well the major players of the time.  Ringo, by any standard, led an interesting life.

At only 31 years of age, on July 14, 1882, Ringo was found dead in one of the more bizarre death scenes of the time.  He was found facing west, sitting at the tree in the photograph above, with a bullet entry wound in the right temple and an exit wound in the top of his head on the left side.  His revolver, a Colt .45 holding five cartridges, was in his right hand; his Winchester 1876 was resting beside him against the tree.  Nothing points to an ambush, and Ringo was described as depressed in some accounts, but there are indeed some oddities about the death scene.  He wore two cartridge belts, and the revolver cartridge belt was worn upside down.  He was missing a part of his scalp (in a different location than the exit wound from the fatal bullet) leading some to surmise he'd been scalped.  He was barefoot, and had wrapped socks and part of an undershirt around his feet.  Much can, and has, been written about the theories of his suicide or murder (depending on which camp you're in) as well as controversial details about the scene, but I will not begin to debate them here.  Suffice it to say that no one can proclaim with certainty what did occur that hot summer day, beyond the fact that Ringo died by gunshot, nestled within a clump of oak trees, at that beautiful spot alongside the creek on a hot summer day.

Ringo was buried just feet from where his body was found.  Unlike many sites of interest related to gunfighters' deaths or burials, there's no disputing that Ringo is in the ground beneath the rocks shown here.  He did, indeed, die just a few feet left of the stone cairn in the center of the photo.  This location was near a major wagon road, used for logging and other freight; in fact, Ringo's body was found by a teamster driving through.

Today, his grave is scattered with quarters, left in tribute by those who visit his resting place.

It is one of many ironies of John's death that everyone familiar with his legend wants to add their "two-bits' worth," and that even today, his grave is marked with "two bit" pieces.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Oh, Those Misunderstood Tumblin' Tumbleweeds!

Picture this in your sepia-toned imagination:  a lonely, dusty desert street, bleached by the ever-present sun.  A couple of tired horses are tied to the wooden hitching post in front of the general store.  A vulture circles ominously overhead, and a scrawny yellow dog trots uneasily across the road.  If that doesn't build enough ambience for the western movie in your head, add a tumbleweed, freed from its roots by the wind and drought.  It half-rolls and half-bounces in the breeze until it lodges against a barbed-wire fence, trapped alongside a half-dozen of its cousins.  Now you've got the iconic western setting.

Or do you?  That tumbleweed, so evocative of desolate western life, is no more native to the land than the ponies tethered in front of the shop.  It's true name is Russian thistle.  The bane of sock-wearing hikers who've encountered them in the arid regions of the west, it was an import.  You've probably already guessed it came from Russia.  It's last name, though, is a misnomer:  it's actually not a thistle, despite its prickly nature.  If you're a stickler for detail, you'll refer to it by its botanical name:  Salsola iberica.

The tumbleweed hitch-hiked here as a stowaway in a load of flax seed shipped to South Dakota.  It fit in well, thriving on the harsh, dry conditions -- and, like most of the native desert plants, its stickers made it seem like a natural.  It germinates quickly and, thanks to its tumbling skills, it spreads its seed with each bounce.  It's considered an invasive weed by some, and a darned nuisance by others.  

It didn't arrive in the United States until the 1870's, but it was soon clear it was here to stay.  If you're watching movies set earlier in the century, those tumbleweeds rolling along the landscape are anachronisms.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Welcome to that Old Place Just West of My Heart

The old west is still alive in many places -- some real, some imagined, some contrived.  It's still alive on some of the remaining ranches that sprawl across the countryside, where "the old way" of doing things is still the right way.  It's alive in some of the small towns where gimpy cowboys greet the day telling stories to (and on) each other at the main street cafe.  It's alive in fictitious places, on the pages of books we love, in scenes of movies we watch again and again, and on the computer monitor before your eyes.  It's alive inside many of us -- and that's why I've chosen to call this little virtual place "just west of my heart."

I'm well into the middle ages of my own western love affair.  I love the history, the trappings, the old-school western crafts, the vistas, the creatures, and the kindred spirits who share this passion.  As an Arizona native, I was privileged to grow up in a much-more-western west, surrounded by open space, ranches, and the gritty, self-reliant individuals these places spawned.  Dad moved here to the desert as a young man, thirsty for the lifestyle and the land; whether nature or nurture, his love for the place and its past made its way into my own DNA.

Now, watching a little more bit of the west eaten up every day by soulless subdivisions and hungry asphalt, and seeing the values changing from self-reliance to dependence, I share the concerns of many westerners about the erosion of our lifestyle.  I find refuge in reliving the "old" west in many ways; daily time on horseback, tooling leather using the same techniques the masters of the past 150 years used, or researching the history in person or in the pages of dusty out-of-print volumes.

This is the basis of the medley of western writing you'll find here:  some personal experiences, some memories, some tales gleaned from the archives, some hard facts, and some sweeping opinions.  There might be an interview here and there, or an essay on the then-and-now contrast.  You won't find too much emphasis on the commercialized west; there are enough magazines devoted to selling you stuff.  Neither will you find constant retelling of the same five gun battles; here, we'll focus on more obscure lore.  I like John Wayne's movies, but John Wayne wasn't a cowboy; I'm more interested in what a cowboy has to say about a western movie than in what a movie cowboy has to say about the west.  I find the old ways and commonplace routines of the real west far more fascinating than the retold and resold Hollywood west.  The shopkeepers and schoolmistresses, the butchers and blacksmiths, are the characters with a more authoritative voice than those who filled the big screen with tin badges and artful dialogue.

I hope you'll enjoy returning to that old place with me -- it isn't glamorous and it isn't always pretty.  It's always dusty and sometimes bloody, but it's authentic.  It's still here, just west of my heart.