George Coe – Gunman

 

From: MORE Tales of Tularosa by Mrs. Tom Charles based on the work compiled by her late husband. Stories gathered for more than 25 yrs. before his death in 1943.  Copyright 1961 

 

 “I’LL BET MY GUN against yours, George, that this one will get Sheriff Brady.” It was Billy the Kid, speaking and patting his pearl-handled weapon. He and George Coe, 18, were finishing an all-night session in a cabin at the Coe homestead near Glencoe, where George Coe held forth for some seventy years.

A few hours later the Lincoln County War, one of the bloodiest of American Range Wars, was started by this same pearl-handled gun when Billy the Kid killed Sheriff William Brady from ambush in old Lincoln. But the incidents which led up to that killing; as related to me by George Coe himself during our many years of friendship, are not widely known. To hear Coe tell the story one realized anew that there were two sides to the Billy the Kid story and the Lincoln County War.

“Yes, Billy bet his gun against mine and I thought, Well that’s a good bet if I lose,” chuckled the kindly old rancher.

George Coe and his cousin Frank Coe came to the Hondo valley in New Mexico as farmers and brought the first mower and threshing machine to this country. They set out from Missouri on May 1, 1874, settled first at Sugarite in northern New Mexico, then moved on to the Hondo Valley by ox-cart in March of 1876. It was in the fall of 1878 that the incidents occurred which led to the all-night session and the youthful gunman’s parting wager.

“So far as I was concerned it all started on March 24th when a sheriff’s posse of Negro soldiers suddenly appeared at my ranch and arrested me on charges of harboring a mur­derer; the murderer being a fugitive named Frank Freeman who, while hiding out, formed a habit of helping himself to food from my larder when I was away,” Coe stated. Coe’s neighbor, Doc Skurlock, had already been arrested on the same charge and Coe was thrown onto a skinny barebacked pony behind Skurlock.

“My hands were tied with wet rope, my feet were hobbled under the horse, and we were forced to set out on a thirty-five mile trot through the night, and in a drizzling rain.” Coe went on to tell of the saddle-sores which soon developed; the wet rope cut his wrists and the hobbles rubbed his ankles. He begged the Negro trooper beside him to ease the ropes and give him relief from the pain, but the commanding officer ahead said “No” and the torturing ride went on.

When George finally arrived in Old Lincoln, Ike Ellis, well known to early day settlers in Otero and Lincoln counties, made bond for him and he was allowed to return home. The charge was later dropped and he never came to trial.

Coe explained that law and justice were not always syn­onymous in the frontier days. The largest cattle baron might also be the biggest cattle rustler, or even a murderer, some­times having acquired his wealth and power that way. Then with men, money and lands in his control, he too often managed the “law’ in his own sector.

The small rancher, the homesteader, the honest cattleman was in his way and often at his mercy. If he could not get rid of the “little man” one way then he looked for another; and one of his methods was to use the “law” as he interpreted it. Coe said that a group headed by Murphy, Dolan and Riley* controlled the mercantile business, the post office, the beef contracts with the government, the peace officers and the courts, and were determined to drive the little farmers out.

Meanwhile the rope marks were still on Coe’s wrists. On February 18, shortly before Coe’s terrible night ride, a weary, hard-pressed rider had galloped up to Billy the Kid out at the J. H. Tunstall ranch, where he was foreman, with a warning that a posse was on the way to arrest Tunstall.

Knowing the usual posse methods Billy and the other ranch hands begged Tunstall to “take to the hills,” according to Coe. “They won’t arrest you, they’ll kill you,” Billy argued. “We are outnumbered—there are too many in their posse and we have got to fight or clear out.”

“No,” Tunstall insisted; he had done nothing wrong. “I’ll go out and meet them and give myself up.”

Billy’s appeals were useless, and Tunstall trotted off toward Lincoln. Billy and the other ranch hands left the ranch but Billy and Dick Brewer turned back, and when out of sight on the ridge, they followed Tunstall. When Tunstall met the posse, apparently he was ordered to throw up his hands. Billy and his companion saw him do so and, as he did, the posse began to fire. His body was pierced with thirteen bullet holes. It was George Coe and Billy the Kid who later carried his body out of the canyon.

Both the Kid and Coe were furious over the killing of Tunstall, and Coe was also bitter over the horseback ride in the rain, with his swollen wrists and ankles. The result; “My gun against yours George, that mine gets Brady.” Both swore vengeance on the sheriff’s posse.

Coe went on home but the Kid, Fred Wait, Jim Middleton, Jim French, and a man named Smith, went to Lincoln, hop­ing for a sight of Brady. Four of the group waited on the porch at McSween’s while the fifth went to a house in another part of town and started a commotion by shooting out the windows. Sheriff Brady was sent for, and as he rushed to the scene past the McSween home, accompanied by George Hineman and Billy Matthews, the party opened fire. Brady and Hineman were killed and Matthews was wounded. That was on April 1st according to Coe’s memory.

“Two days later Billy the Kid and [eleven] men came out to our home. The war was on full blast. I left a Mexican farm hand in charge of the place and joined the crowd.” They camped that first night at the head of the Ruidoso and Coe recalled how the group sat around the fire making boasts as to what they meant to do to the other gang. When they were dozing, Billy threw a handful of shells into the fire.

  “When they began exploding, you should have seen us scatter like quail—we did not even wait to get our guns”—and then the Kid joshed them about their bravery and their boasts.

From then on, it was war, Coe said. Billy and his crowd were fugitives from justice and they heard that a reward of $200 each had been offered for them, dead or alive. A few days later Buckshot Roberts** attempted to arrest the group at Blazer’s Mill near Mescalero, in what is now known as the first battle of the Lincoln County War. Roberts and Dick Brewer were killed. George Coe’s “trigger-finger” was shot off and another bullet creased his chest.

        “We did a lot of things we should not have done,” the old warrior said wearily. “We had to. There was a price on our heads.”

        The bitter conflict grew to such proportions that General Lew Wallace was appointed Territorial Governor for the pri­mary purpose of quelling the trouble. The fact that Governor Wallace declared an amnesty, offering full pardon and full protection of the law to each and every one of the Billy the Kid group, substantiates Mr. Coe’s contention that there were two sides to the trouble. Billy the Kid had a conference with the governor, but refused to accept the amnesty, declaring that he had so many enemies that he could not turn back, and that only his pearl-handled gun could protect him. Coe was one of the forty-five men who accepted the amnesty, and George and Frank Coe became prominent ranchers and were highly respected citizens until their deaths only a few years ago.

        In the spring of 1881 came Billy the Kid’s arrest and his dramatic escape from the old Lincoln County Courthouse, leaving dead his two guards and bitter enemies, Bob Ollinger and Charles Bell, by the gun he had wrested from Bell. And finally, the same spring brought Billy’s death at the hands of Pat Garrett in Pete Maxwell’s home at Fort. Sumner.

In later years Coe tried to get permission to move the Kid’s body from Fort Sumner to his own burial plot at the ranch near Glencoe, but the county commissioners there held that only a blood relative could move the body, so Billy still lies in a remote corner of the Fort Sumner cemetery. In the Spring of 1961 another effort was made to move the body— this time, to Lincoln.

Although the Lincoln County War is only a memory now, residents of the Glencoe communities keep it alive by their annual August pageant in which the high points of the Lincoln County War are re-enacted in costume. One of the leaders in the pageant is Wilbur Coe of Glencoe, son of our old friend Frank Coe; and George Coe’s children and grand­children are always there to participate.

In 1938 the Museum of New Mexico and the School of American Research in Santa Fe sponsored a project for the restoration of the old Lincoln County Courthouse at Old Lin­coln. This is the building which from 1870 to 1880 housed the operations of the L. G. Murphy Company, and one wing on the second floor served as a Masonic Hall. Following the bloody Lincoln County War and the dissolving of the Murphy­Dolan interests, Territorial Lincoln County purchased the building for use as a courthouse. Operated now as a historical monument and museum, hundreds of visitors come annually to view it.

 

* LAWRENCE G. MURPHY came to New Mexico with the California column during the Civil War, made a fortune operating Post Trader’s store at Fort Stanton and then built “the big store’’ at Lincoln. JAMES J. DOLAN began his career making himself useful to Murphy, and was made a partner in the firm which became powerful, and active in the Lincoln County War. JOHN H. RILEY also came with the California column, later worked as a clerk for Murphy at Fort Stanton, and then became a partner with Dolan after Murphy withdrew. Riley was a fighter and engaged in fist fights as well as gun fights.

 

** ANDREW L. ROBERTS was a newcomer to the Ruidoso valley, claimed to he a Texan but his speech indicated he was from the deep South. Some claimed that he left Texas in a hurry, propelled by a load of buckshot from a double-barrelled shotgun, hence the nickname. Roberts was obviously a bounty hunter after the $200 rewards. He was also accused of being a member of the posse that killed Tunsall.