I can't be certain what 28 year old Thomas McLaury (above) was thinking that Sunday afternoon, 25 July, 1880. I'm sure he was anxious and angry, watching 9 strangers approach the ranch he shared with his older brother. But then Tom was often angry, and anger masks thought. At just 5 foot 3 inches tall Tom found a reputation as a hot head to be a leveler in social conflicts. His opponents and even friends never knew when Tom might turn violent, and that hid how smart he was. With his men at hand suddenly outnumbered, and with 5 of the men pulling up outside his corral wearing soldier blue, and with 6 freshly re-branded stolen army mules in his corral, Tom knew he would have to do some pretty fast thinking to avoid a shootout with the U.S. Government in his own front yard.
The mules had been stolen 4 days earlier from Camp Rucker, an outpost in the cool elevations of White Canyon in the Chiricahua (chee-ree-KAH-wah) or wild turkey mountains, about 35 miles east of Tombstone and an equal distance north of the Sonora border. The garrison of 45 soldiers and 100 Indian scouts where supposed to discourage Apache raids, and mules were essential to their existence. Pride and regulations demanded the stolen property be returned, so the next morning Lieutenant Joseph H. Hurst set out with 4 men to locate the missing animals. But the civil war veteran seems to have been pretty certain the thieves were not Apache, because he headed straight for Tombstone. He arrived there on 24 July, seeking out the federal authority, the Deputy United States' Marshal. His name was Virgil Earp.
The McLaury boys - there were 8 of them and 3 girls - were all short and well educated. Their father had been a judge back in Iowa, and all the boys studied law. What interrupted the father's dreams and defined the son's lives was 5 years of bloodletting. Like all wars, the American Civil War left a "lost" generation in its wake - traumatized, emotionally drained, and in varying degrees feeling abused, cheated and betrayed. Only the eldest son, Will, went on to pass the bar. He started his law practice as a carpetbagger in Fort Worth, Texas. His younger brothers, Tom and 33 year old Robert Findley "Frank" McLaury, had intended upon joining him. But in 1878 the lure of quick money around the Tombstone silver strike distracted Frank and Tom McLaury to the Arizona desert.
Marshal Virgil Earp (above) was certain any white thieves could most likely be found in the violent little mill town of Charleston. He sent a telegraph to an informant there - Dave Estes - and looking for safety in numbers he brought along popular Tombstone town marshal Fred White, as well his own deputized brothers Morgan and Wyatt Earp. On Sunday morning all nine men rode the 8 miles west to where Dave Estes suggested the mules could be found, south of Charleston, on the west bank of the San Pedro River, along Babocomari creek - on the McLaury ranch.
There were six mules in the corral. Outnumbered, 5 foot 4 inch tall Frank McLaury (above) allowed the animals to be inspected. The brands on their left hind quarters read "D.S.", however the uneven nature of the wounds made it obvious to a skeptic that the brand had been recently altered from "U.S.". The inspection strengthened Lt. Hurst's resolve to reclaim the mules. However Tom McLaury's temper abruptly changed the conversation. Even though he had never met the Earps before - Tom rarely went into Tombstone - he pointed at them and warned, "If they ever again follow us as close as you did, they will have a fight!" As usual Frank stepped in to calm his brother, while neighboring ranch owner Frank Patterson took over the negotiations.
Lieutenant Joseph Hurst was no naive West Point shave tail, easily frightened by threats. He'd been on the frontier for years. Before that he had risen in the ranks in the Army of the Potomac, promoted to first lieutenant for bravery at Fredricksburg in 1863, wounded at Chancellorsville, and again at Spottsylvania Courthouse in 1864. But he also knew that as a military officer he could not seize the mules, nor arrest civilians. Marshall Virgil Earp could do both, but to arrest the volcanic Tom seemed to run the risk of bloodshed. So Hurst allowed himself to be convinced that Frank McLaury would return the mules later, after Tom McLaury had been distracted. Hurst informed the Earps of his decision and the mule rescue party returned to Tombstone without the mules. However, the next morning, before he returned to Camp Rucker, Hurst warned Virgil Earp of Tom McLaury's threat.
The delay raises the question of why Hurst did not warn Virgil at the McLaury ranch. It seems likely to me, that the Lieutenant sized up Marshall Earp pretty quickly as another hot head, and realized that Tom McLaury's belligerent threat might very well have pushed the Marshall to confrontation. And the 4 men Lt. Hurst was directly responsible for were not trained or armed for a free for all gun fight. The Earps would later imply that Hurst had been duped by Patterson and Frank McLaury. But I suspect Joseph Hurst just decided 6 mules were not worth his men's lives. But whatever agreement Lt. Hurst thought had been reached, the mules were not returned.
Not that Hurst could allow the matter to drop. In a notice posted in the Friday, 30 July 1880 edition of the Tombstone Epitaph, the Lieutenant offered $35 for the return of the mules and $25 for the arrest of the thieves, whom he identified as "Pony" Diehl, Augustus S. Hansbrough and Sherman MacMasters. Then he went further, accusing Frank Patterson, Frank McLaury and Jim Johnson of hiding the stolen property. Pointedly he did not challenge Tom McLaury. Frank respond a week later, in the Thursday, 5 August edition of the rival Tombstone Daily Nugget. Frank claimed to have assured the Army Lieutenant, "I would do what I could to assist him. In the course of the next day I saw Diehl...Diehl replied that he knew nothing of the stock...and I interested myself no farther about it."
But Frank McLaury added that Lieutenant Hurst was "...a coward, a vagabond, a rascal, and a malicious liar." Frank even suggested that Hurst might have stolen and sold the mules himself. "My name is well known in Arizona," Frank wrote, "and thank God that this is the first time in my life that the name of dishonesty was ever attached to me..." Having delivered that line with a straight face, Frank managed to avoid mentioning the central secret which supported the Tombstone money machine - most of the beef consumed daily by the miners of Tombstone, was stolen, and most of that from Sonora. In fact the closest allies and neighbors of the McLaury brothers were the owners of one of most successful ranches in southern Arizona, and thus the one of the largest dealers in stolen beef - the Clantons.
The large Clanton family trickled into Arizona beginning in 1873, by way of Tennessee, Texas and California. They might have stayed in the last two states if they had been willing to fight. Instead both times Newman Hayes "Old Man" Clanton (above) chose the smarter approach and moved his family on. As the Tombstone mines began drawing hungry miners, in 1877, "Old Man" Clanton took the opportunity to move into moving cattle, even introducing Sonora rustling to his new neighbors, Tom and Frank McLaury. Where both McLaury brothers were short and dark, the Clantons were tall and described by one who knew them as, "..true blondes (who) rode tall in the saddle...extremely handsome ...and very affable..." And under the calming guidence of the "Old Man", they built a hill top adobe near Lewis Springs, about 5 miles south of Charleston, and 12 miles west of Tombstone. From there "Old Man Clanton" could see for miles in the dry desert air. No lawmen would ever get the drop on them the way Lt. Hurst and the Earps had surprised the McLaury brothers.
By 1880 "Old Man" Clanton was 64 years old but still active and successful. Most of the labor on the Clanton Arizona ranch was done by second son, 35 year old Phineas "Phin" Fay Clanton, who had several arrests for rustling but no convictions. These days Phin stayed close to the ranch, along with his brother-in-law August M. Smith. Meanwhile both 33 year old Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton and 18 year old William Harrison "Billy" Clanton (above) were well known, if not always welcomed in Charleston, Tombstone, and Sonora.
Newman Hayes Clanton's (above) rustling empire was doing so well, the Old Man needed legitimate businesses to launder his profits, That November he purchased a house and a saloon in Charleston, on Pioneer Street.
And with John Peters "Johnny" Ringo (above) he claimed 320 acres in the Animas Valley, New Mexico, at a site called San Simon Cienega. Their stated intent was to grow alfalfa as feed for cattle. It all tied together into what was called the "rustlers trail".
Running across arid desert from watering hole to watering hole, this production line of stolen beef began at the northern mouth of Guadalupe Canyon on the Sonora border, headed north up the Animas Valley, then on to the eastern slopes of the Chiricahuas mountains, west through Skeleton Canyon (or Tex canyon) into Arizona, across Sulphur Springs Valley to the Dragoon Mountains, through the South Pass near Tombstone, then southwest to the Soldiers "water" Hole and right to the back door to the Clanton Ranch at the eastern foot of the Huachuca Mountains.
Gathered together in this enterprise were a hardy and hard group of entrepreneurs referred to as the "Cowboys of Cochise County " - Charles "Pony Diehl" Ray, his life long friend Sherman McMasters. alcoholic marksman "Curly Bill" Brocius (above), 30 year old John Peters "Johnny" Ringo...
...Billy "The Kid" Claiborne (above), Harry "The Kid" Head, the nervous Billy "The Kid" Grounds, the unlucky Richard "Zwing" Hunt...
... 23 year old occasional lawman Frank Stillwell (above), 30 year old ex-Texas Ranger Elliot Larkin Ferguson AKA Pete Spence, William "Bill" Lang, Stagecoach robber and ex-jewelry store owner "Notorious" Jim Crane, gregarious and dangerous Florentino Cruz, Richard "Dixie Lee Grey", Charlie Snow, Bill Byers and gunman Scott Cooley - among others.
Rightly or wrongly, these men would be cast as villains in the story of the October 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. A few weeks after the 1880 confrontation on their ranch, the McLaury brothers spotted Marshal Virgil Earp on the streets of Charleston. Tom McLaury made it a point to challenge the lawman once again, repeating now in person the threat he had made to Lt. Hurst. Thus the unresolved confrontation over 6 stolen army mules set the McLaury's on a collision course with the Earp family.
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