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Published on Friday, August 2, 2013

Author's note: The following story is based upon a true incident that occurred in Winslow, Arizona Territory, in 1905. Arizona had not yet achieved statehood and had a well-earned reputation as a rootin' tootin' place where hard cases still lived and law and order was sporadic at best. The town of Canyon Diablo, a ghost town now called Two Guns, is just off of Interstate 40, near the popular tourist stop, Meteor Crater.

Incident at Canyon Diablo

By Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann


Bartender Ruben Sanchez dried his hands on his long apron. He stuck his fingers inside the tops of four glasses and carried them and a whiskey bottle to the table. Then he struck a match and lit the low hanging lantern. The warm orange glow of the lantern chased out the long evening shadows and gave light to the cards being dealt. The Saturday night poker game commenced.

"I bet three dollars," said Deputy Pete Pemberton. He looked at the ranch hand sitting to his left and grinned.

The thin, lanky cowboy from the Hash Knife outfit pushed back his battered Stetson and rubbed his chin. "Bluffin' again, eh Pete? Just 'cause you own the place don't mean you can buy the pot. I call." He tossed in three dollars and used his elbow to poke the cowpoke next to him. "Ain't that right Pard?"

"Danged if I know," said Sleepy Sherman. Sleepy's flared nose, long flowing mustache, and sun tanned wrinkles gave him the appearance of a man either perpetually tired or suffering from a hangover. Reputed as a steady cowboy of few words; he never complained even if he rode the dusty drags for a full week.


Deputy Pemberton cocked his head to the side. "Slats, you're wrong. I own only a part of the Wigwam, I borrowed the money from Sheriff Houck for the most of it."

"You're gonna have to arrest more drunks fer the five dollar fines," said Slats .

"I'll start with you and Sleepy every Saturday night," countered Pete. "That'd be ten dollars more per week."

Slats chuckled. "With all the money I took from you last Saturday, I can afford the fines."

"That was last week," said Pete. "Tonight my cards are gonna be hotter than a whorehouse on nickel night."

The players at the table let out with a loud guffaw. As usual, raucous ribbing accompanied the friendly card game.

Lucky Lucy threw in five silver dollars, smiled and said, "I raise." She tossed her head, flung back her long red tresses and adjusted the low-cut top of her saloon attire in a somewhat effective attempt to distract the other three players.

Lucy spent most of her time in the Wigwam. She was called Lucky Lucy because she often won during the Saturday night poker sessions; perhaps because only she stayed sober. Most local business men knew the lively lady as a friend; and several also knew her in the Biblical sense.

Suddenly the rattle of the swinging saloon doors swept the leering stares away from Lucy.

Two cowboys wearing clean shirts stomped in and bellied up to the bar. "Rot Gut" said the tall muscular one.

Sanchez wiped out two small glasses with his beer stained bar rag, set them on the bar and poured the whiskey.

Pete nodded toward the newcomers and quietly asked. "Who are those guys?"

"Danged if I know," said Sleepy Sherman.

"They ain't Hash Knife boys," snarled Slats. "And they don't smell like sheep men."

Deputy Pemberton pushed back from the green cloth-covered table and walked up to the strangers. He adjusted his coat so that the badge on his vest would show. "Howdy boys. I'm Deputy Pemberton. New in town or just passing through?"

The tall one glanced at the badge with narrowed eyes. A smirk crossed his sunburned face. "Shaw is the name. My pard here is Bill Evans. Just came over from Sedona country. We don't plan to stay long."

Shaw took only a sip and then placed his glass back on the bar. The squat ruddy faced Evans did the same.

Suddenly, from the station across the street, the west bound Union Pacific train spilled its whistle. As if on cue both strangers drew six shooters and pointed them at the Deputy.

"Git up everybody and back to the wall!" shouted Shaw. Saloon patrons nervously complied. "Nobody move or the Deputy gets it!"

He pulled a grain sack from inside of his coat. "Hurry Bill. Pick up the table cash and check their pockets. Barkeep fill this bag from the cash drawer."

In three minutes the theft was complete. Backing out of the swinging doors, Shaw sent a parting shot that nicked Pete Pemberton's arm. The train began its slow, steaming chug away from the Winslow station.

"That damn Shaw tried to kill me!" shouted Pete as he wrapped his scarf around the scratch on his arm. "Where did they go?"

"Danged if I know," said Sleepy.

From a distance, the lonesome whistle blew again, then faded as the train gained speed on its way toward Flagstaff.

"Sure as hell, they hopped that freight train," said Lucy.

Finally the saloon patrons gave out a collective sigh of relief and anger replaced anxiety.

"What did we lose?" yelled Pete.

"They took about fifty from the cash drawer," said Sanchez.

"About forty in the pot, and maybe two hundred more from myself and Sleepy," answered Slats.

"What'd you lose Lucy?" asked the Deputy.

"Only the five I threw in the pot," she said. "I saved eight silver dollars. Stuffed 'em quick in the top of my dress."

"Ain't much extra room in there," joked Slats. Lucy smiled and accepted the statement as a compliment.

Deputy Pemberton took charge. "Sherman, go out and round up a posse. Tell whoever you can rope in that they will get free beer. I'll telegraph Sheriff Houck in Holbrook. The next west bound train is due in about three hours. He'll be on it and our posse will join him. I'll also wire Sheriff O'Hanlon in Flag and he'll board the train when it arrives and search for the outlaws."

"Bet they'll hop off before Flagstaff... probably at Canyon Diablo," said Lucy.

Slats' forehead wrinkled. "Canyon Diablo? Ah ain't been there for years... only the Volz trading post is left... and a couple saloons. Town is a regular hell hole."

Pemberton drew his six-shooter and checked the chambers. "Sounds like a good place to hide out. Maybe Evans and Shaw will steal a couple of horses and ride toward Mexico."


*         *        *


Sleepy Sherman came back with three men, Parish Priest Father Abernathy, Hank Benson, a school teacher, and the Winslow Gazette reporter Teddy Parks. All three, including the priest, went to the bar and drew steins of beer.

Pete looked toward the men at the bar, raised his eyes to the ceiling and called Sherman over. "This the best you could do? These three couldn't catch a mouse in a barrel. Can you find some more somewheres?"

"Danged if I know," said Sleepy.

"Most others are probably drunk or don't care to be bothered," offered Slats.

While they waited for Sheriff Houck, Pemberton watched his posse as they kept drinking to screw up their courage. Two hours later, the telegraph operator came rushing with two messages in his hand.

The first said, "ON THE WAY," HOUCK. The second said, "STOPPED TRAIN, ROBBERS NOT ON," O'HANLON.

Deputy Pemberton looked over his posse and tried to sound confident. "Boys we're goin' to Canyon Diablo when Houck's train arrives."

Lucy placed her hands on her hips and looked straight at Pete. "I'm goin' too. I ain't gonna miss this party."


*         *        *


Bill Evans and Johnny Shaw leaped from the door of the empty cattle car as the train slowed to pass through Canyon Diablo.

They walked toward the town's one shadowy street. Blocks of yellow light streamed out of saloon doors and dotted the boardwalk. Four or five horses were tied to the hitching rails. It was quiet.

"TRADING POST Otto Volz Proprietor" read a hand painted sign the hung on the front of a crumbling adobe building at the edge of town. Two Navaho men, wrapped in colorful blankets, sat on a bench near the entrance and smoked their pipes.

Johnny Shaw peered in the window. "Three saloons and this trading post ... Canyon Diablo sure ain't much of a town... only Injuns and outlaws. I'll bet even the Hash Knife boys don't frequent this place."

"That's good. No jail and no John Law," said Evans. "Do ya think that Deputy will risk comin' hereabouts?"

"Nah, he'll figure we're in Flagstaff or beyond," said Shaw. "Come on. I'll bet Diablo's got whores and whiskey. We din't even get to finish that drink in Winslow afore that train whistle blew."

Shaw pulled two silver dollars from the grain sack. He stuck one in his leather vest and flipped the other to Evans. They walked down the boardwalk and pushed in the swinging doors of the Hell Street Saloon.


*         *        *


Sheriff Houck studied his seven person posse as they boarded the train. He frowned, pursed his lips and shook his head. Father Abernathy was unarmed. The tall beer stein in his hand and the clerical collar around his neck sent a comical conflicting message.

Teacher Hank Benson carried a rusty double barreled twelve gauge shotgun. He looked soft, unaccustomed to physical work and appeared to be no more than twenty-five years old.

Slats and Sleepy Sherman wore side-arms, but could they shoot?

Armed with a pen and writing pad reporter Parks probably hoped to see blood spilled; as long as it wasn't his.

Deputy Pemberton wore a holstered Colt and carried a rifle.

Lucy came along. Houck smiled. He knew she always hid a derringer in her purse. She probably had more sand than all the rest of them.

In an hour they would be in Diablo. Houck figured he could count on Pemberton, Slats, and maybe Sherman. The rest will just be in the way. "If the robbers are holed up in Canyon Diablo, let's hope we can take 'em by surprise," he muttered to himself.

Houck convinced the Engineer to slow to a crawl about a mile outside of town so they could slip off the moving train. That way the train would chug straight through Diablo and Evans and Shaw would feel safe since the train did not stop.

An hour later, the train slowed and the men jumped down from the train.

A determined Lucy looked Houck in the eye. "You ain't leavin' me here. I aim to see this through." So Slats helped Lucy step down from the train as it crawled along and the posse began the mile walk into Canyon Diablo.

Reporter Parks wrote in his pad as he marched along with the rest. He sidled up to Sleepy Sherman. "I got all the names down, but do you know Sheriff Houck's first name?"

"Danged if I know," said Sleepy.


*         *        *


Otto Volz stood outside the door of his trading post holding a shotgun pointed at the group as it walked down the dark street. When he recognized Sheriff Houck, he nervously lowered the barrel of the shotgun and stammered, "Oh, it's you Sheriff. Now Sheriff Houck, I ain't been sellin' viskey to no Injuns. No sir by golly. Not Hopi, 'Pache or Navaho."

"I ain't here for that this time Otto," said Houck. "You seen any strangers in town tonight?"

Volz breathed a sigh of relief. "Ach ya, as a matter of fact, I did. Two men peeked in my winder a couple of hours ago. They vas walkin' down Hell Street. I tink they went in the Hell Street Saloon."

Houck called the posse close. "Now," he spoke with deliberation. "No shooting unless they pull guns. Pemberton you lead, 'cause you'll recognize them. Slats and Sherman follow with me. The rest of you stay the hell out of the way!"

Pemberton approached the batwing doors. Sheriff Houck walked close behind. Slats and Sherman followed. Teacher Benson, Father Abernathy, Lucy, and Parks slid to one side, stayed on the boardwalk and peeked through the window.

Three patrons played poker at a table near the bar. A stairway led to a small balcony. A cowboy sat on the floor in one corner. He appeared asleep or passed out.

"That's them with the two doves at the bar," whispered Pemberton.

Houck pushed in the doors and drew his six-gun. "Hold! You two are under arrest."

The two girls broke free and scurried up the stairs. The bartender knelt behind the bar, but rose slightly and his bald head shone as he peeked around a stein of beer. Slats and Sherman moved quickly to the side.

Evans turned, staggered slightly and looked at Shaw. With lowered eyes Shaw stood stone still.

Shaw weaved and blinked several times trying to focus, but his words were clear and icy. "You ain't takin' us in," he said. A few eerie seconds elapsed. Then he quickly pulled his six-shooter. Seeing Shaw take action, Evans did the same.

Suddenly two pairs of men were firing at each other from only eight feet apart. A din of rapid gunshots and a cloud of milky grey smoke filled the saloon.

A shot from Evans went through Houck's coat and another knocked off his hat. Houck returned fire and wounded Evans in the leg.

Shaw fired repeatedly in wild fashion. Pemberton raised his rifle to his hip and fired.

His shot hit Shaw in the chest. Both outlaws were down.

Suddenly it was quiet. Shaw was beyond caring. Evans rose for a second and then hobbled to a chair.

Lucy entered the saloon and looked at Sheriff Houck. "I'm okay," he said. Then she walked to Evans and wrapped her scarf around his wounded leg.


*         *        *


Houck hand cuffed Evans. Shaw was carried to boot hill on the edge of town. Volz supplied two shovels and Slats and Sherman quickly dug a shallow grave.

The next train back to Winslow arrived an hour later. The proud, but by now inebriated posse took its prisoner aboard. When the train arrived, Pete jailed Shaw and Houck continued on back to Holbrook. The rest of the posse headed back to the Wigwam Saloon.

After midnight, Sanchez brought over a new round of drinks and the celebration and poker game resumed.

"Bend yer elbow boys. It's been a hog-killin' good time," said Pemberton.

"Look there," said Slats as he shuffled the cards. "Their drinks are still settin' on the bar! What shall we do with them?"

"Danged if I know," said Sleepy.

"As I recollect, they paid for them," said Lucy.

Pete rose and slid his chair back. "Well hell," he said. "Let's take Evan's drink over to him in jail since he paid for it."

Pete grabbed the glass and led the parade to the jail.

Evans swallowed the jigger of whiskey in one gulp. "Wish Ol Shaw were here. He'd love one about now." He grinned. "Probably pretty hot where he's at. He finished game though didn't he? What're you gonna do with his drink?"

"Danged if I know," drawled Sleepy.

"Well hell," said a wobbly Pete. "Lesh all go back to Dah---hah---blow and give it to him."

After a few seconds of stunned silence, Reporter Ted Parks broke into a big grin and spoke up. "That's a capital idea!. This will make a helluva story." Then he rushed out to get his camera.

Near dawn they boarded the next train to Canyon Diablo. Lucy sipped whiskey, swayed, giggled and then half cried as she leaned on Slats.

Sherman laid back on the seat and snored loudly as whiskey and the pulsating rhythm of the lumbering train lulled him to sleep.

Pete drank the jigger intended for Shaw, but held a bottle and the empty glass. He mumbled curses.

Father Abernathy shook his head in disbelief. He sent a prolonged stare at each individual. "You men have gone completely haywire," he said loud enough for all to hear.

Ted Parks fiddled with his camera and kept writing notes in his notebook.

At sunrise the train stopped in Canyon Diablo.

"Where did we plant him?" asked Slats.

"Danged if know," said Sleepy.

Lucy seemed embarrassed, unsure. "Right over there near that fence I think," she said. "Looks like Vogt's shovels are still there."

Sherman held the whiskey glass steady as Slats and Pete raised the dead man.

They propped him up against a post.

"Land sakes!" said Slats. "The big galoot looks to be grinnin'."

"As the only lawman in this posse, I figure it is my duty to do the honors," said Pete.

He took the jigger, tilted Shaw's head back and poured the Rot Gut down the dead man's throat.

The men posed and Parks kept snapping pictures. Lucy stood off to the side weeping. Priest Abernathy prayed. "Father forgive these fools. They are drunk. And what in God's name is Parks gonna do with those awful pictures?"

"Danged if I know," said Sleepy Sherman.


*         *        *


A week later a picture appeared in the Winslow newspaper. The headline read: MEN SHARE A SHOT WITH A DEAD OUTLAW!




Author's note: The pictures hung in the Wigwam Saloon until that establishment burned down in 1944. Evans spent nine years in prison. Deputy Pemberton also served time in later years for shooting another peace officer in an altercation in the Wigwam Saloon.


Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann is a former teacher, coach and Compliance Supervisor for the Arizona office of a Wall Street Firm. He has been writing western short stories for several years and recently had an anthology of his work published. His work has been published at The Western Online previously.


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