Curly Bill and his band of desperadoes had terrorized Douglas, Tombstone and Charleston, Arizona for a number of years. Their infamy came from their uncanny ability to make quick raids against the ranches and settlements of southern Arizona. Their technique of crossing the border, stealing what they wanted, and then quickly returning to the safety of Mexico was notorious. They had intimidated the whole countryside – that is, all except one man: John Slaughter.
Slaughter was a southern Arizona cattleman. He had come through Texas and New Mexico before settling in the broad valleys of this new land. John understood the western mentality and he protected his own – never in violation of the law, but in ways that he thought was right and fair.
When a single desperado Mexican crossed his range and killed one of his vaqueros, John saddled a good horse and headed for the border. It was a number of days before he caught up with the murderer deep in Sonora, but when he did he killed him and immediately turned the horse for the long ride home – nobody bothered the cowman as he rode north.
When a dusty Texas cowboy tried to stop John from driving his cattle along the Chisholm Trail through the country west of the Pecos, John told him to “hit the trail.” The cowboy left but later returned with an ultimatum. The young cowhand failed to recognize that John Slaughter was no ordinary cow man, and he ended up with a .44 slug in his middle. It was a fair fight, but a quick one.
Curly Bill was feeling his oats after intimidating most of the Arizona residents with whom he came in contact. He sent word to John that he would personally take over the latter’s cattle herd – since cattle rustling was his business. John didn’t seem to be too concerned.
A few days later Curly Bill, and about twenty of the worst of his notorious gang, arrived at the Slaughter spread. During the day they scouted the herd grazing peacefully in the grasslands of the San Bernardino Ranch near Douglas just north of the border. John’s vaqueros were nowhere to be seen. Curly Bill was patient; after the sun was down and evening began to grey the landscape, his men swooped down on the herd, rounded them into a neat circle and made ready to move them south.
John, however, had let the herd drift while he took his Mexican cowboys up on a high ridge. From this vantage point he watched the whole round-up. Then, when the rustlers had spread out to move the cattle, John and his men silently moved down the hill and joined them – one vaquero behind every desperado. When the shooting was over, a number of Curly Bill’s men were dead on the ground. The rest rode in desperation for the border – Curly Bill among them. It would be a while before they returned.
The battle at the San Bernardino Ranch was big news in Douglas, Tombstone and Charleston, Arizona. The legend of John Slaughter solidly became part of the folklore of southern Arizona. So much so that when the Earp brothers were driven out of Tombstone, John was elected Sheriff of Cochise County.