March 16, 2009
It just never seemed right to me. The first time I went out to Iron Springs (actually styled Mescal Springs on modern topo maps) was in March of 1980. Kathy was eight-and-one-half months pregnant and I hauled her out there in a borrowed truck (my truck overheated on a side trip to Arivaca and we had to leave it there to get a new radiator. Undeterred, I borrowed Johnny Weinkauf's pickup and we took off for the site of the infamous Curly Bill shootout). I brought along Stuart Lake's book, "Frontier Marshal" and when, late in the day, we finally got to the site on the topo map marked Mescal Springs I stood on a rock and read these lines:
"The fork to Iron Springs climbed a narrow, rocky canon into the Whetstones, a veritable inferno beneath the desert sun, and, after two or three miles in which no sign appeared that others recently had used the trail, vigilance relaxed. Wyatt loosened the gun belts around his waist. Horses and men were weary and hot.
"About one hundred yards from the waterhole, the trail rounded a rocky shoulder and cut across a flat shelf of deep sand. Ahead, Iron Springs was hidden by an eroded bank possible fifteen feet high. Beyond the hollow, where the mountain slope resumed, was a grove pf cottonwoods. Between this grove and the waterhole was an abandoned shack, hidden from view by a bluff. Across the sandy stretch Wyatt rode, coat unbuttoned, six-guns sagging low, Winchester in the saddle boot, Wells Fargo shotgun and ammunition belt looped to the saddle horn. His horse had quickened at the scent of water and Wyatt let him make the gait.
"Fifty feet from the spring, intuition brought Wyatt up short. He swung out of the saddle, looped his reins in his left hand, and with his shotgun in his right hand, walked forward. Texas Jack and Sherm McMasters, still mounted, were behind him. Holliday and Johnson, much farther to the rear. In the sand their advance made no sound. Another step gave Wyatt full view of the hollow. As he took it, two men jumped to their feet less than ten yards away, one yanking a sawed-off shotgun to his shoulder, the other breaking for the cottonwoods.
"Curly Bill!' Sherman McMasters yelled in astonishment, wheeled his horse and ran.
As I read these words aloud, a lone cow looked at me, chewing his cud. He didn't seem to buy it either. Drops of water dripped from a pipe. There were no cottonwoods, only mesquite trees. It didn't match the narrative in any way.
I actually mulled the idea of going farther up the trail, but with a very pregnant wife, I decided not to attempt it.
Someone else had the same reaction, and his name is Bill Evans. Several years ago, while on an ATV with his son, and coming in from the other direction, he rode through Cottonwood springs and as he came up on the flats from the spring and turned around, the entire fight suddenly made sense to him.
Bill told several Earp scholars but they told him he was crazy, that the site was where it had always been thought to have been. He finally convinced a group of Tombstone fanatics to go take a look see, and that's when Gary Roberts called me and told me I ought to go look see for myself.
One of my partners, Dave Daiss, has a ranchito in Elgin, so the Top Secret Writer and I met him and his doctor at Dave's ranch house for breakfast on Sunday morning. From there we drove about five miles and met Bill Evans at a cattle guard on the Fairbanks Road. Parking our vehicles at a nearby ranch, we took off on foot:
In this first photo we are walking northwest (those are the Whetstones in the background) and Iron Springs, where the fight was for many years thought to have been fought, is off to the right:
Mescal Springs and Iron Springs are located between the two hillocks in the left side of this photo. The big peak, at right, is referred to as Lone Mountain in the literature and, with this approach, finally matches the location on Wyatt's hand drawn map.
We stopped from time to time as Bill read to us from the source materials. Dave Daiss and Bill are from the area and they were heavily armed. This corridor is still dangerous (if not more so) because it's favored by drug runners (we could see the border from the hike). Dave had a Colt .45 and a Winchester but as he jammed a clip into a .45 automatic he said as he stuffed it into his pants, in back: "It's fun to bring the Old West stuff, but I always like to have some stronger stuff." Ha.
When we met Bill Evans, Dave half apologized for the arsenal, but Bill (a retired military helicopter pilot) simply smiled and pulled up his shirt. He had brought along his own artillery.
When we approached the springs we couldn't see it until the last fifteen feet. This matches the Earp narrative exactly:
Plus, there were cottonwoods and several huge trunks of old cottonwoods in the wash. One of the uncanny aspects of this site is that the canyon walls to the south are almost exactly as Will James rendered them in his drawing of the fight, which appeared in Billy Breakenridge's book, Helldorado.
Although just a line drawing sketch, it's right on. I guess it's possible James came out to do due dilligence in the 1920s, but I kind of doubt it.
From the 15 foot hight ridge, looking down into the spring area, this is what Wyatt Earp saw:
Yes, a Tucson doctor, a helicopter pilot and a distinguished professor all aiming hardware at Mr. Earp. Actually, the boys are standing where Bill believes the cowboys were when Earp dismounted and surprised them.
The site is not perfect. Bill hasn't been able to locate a foundation, or any remnants from the line shack (although one version has it being just a tent). But, in my mind, the terrain finally matches the narrative and having encountered other roaming locations (Ripsey Wash where the Apache Kid escaped being the latest example. The site moved a couple miles from the long reported site when an astute researcher finally found it).
We are going to return to the site in the next several weeks with horses and video tape and shoot POV pictures to help illustrate the piece in True West. I may also do a True West Moment of this deal-io, eh Jeff?"The only constant is change."
—Old Vaquero Saying