The Duck Fight
started over a duck. |
Caleb Berg (Cape) Willingham, first sheriff of
newly-organized Oldham County, was in the Equity Bar, Tascosa’s
oldest saloon, when he heard a commotion outside. Suddenly one of the town’s few
ladies did something most ladies of the era would not – she ran into the drinking
“He killed my duck!” she yelled, pointing to a man outside.
“Shot it just now.”
Willingham saw that the woman was referring to Fred
Leigh, foreman on the LS Ranch. Leigh was known for his drinking and had been
warned before about carrying a pistol in town.
“He did, did he?” the
sheriff asked. “Well, now, don’t you worry. I’ll see that the gentleman pays you
for your duck.”
Armed with a double-barreled shotgun, the big sheriff
walked out and approached the cowboy to discuss the fair market value of domesticated
“You’re in debt to this woman for that duck you
shot just now,” the sheriff said. “You going to pay for it?”
I ain’t going to pay for no duck,” the cowboy replied.
in the process of reminding the cowboy that he was sheriff when he saw the drover’s
hand moving toward the six-shooter on his hip. That ended the talking. The sheriff
let loose with both barrels of his scattergun. With 18 pieces of buckshot in his
body, the cowboy tumbled from his horse, as dead as the duck he’d blasted a short
Not only had Leigh been killed on account of a duck, he
had the added distinction of being the first person buried on a hill outside Tascosa
that soon bore one of the most famous names in the Old West. Leigh having died
with his boots on, saloon proprietor Jack Ryan thought it fitting that the new
graveyard be called Boothill.
(Dodge City also had a Boothill, but that was way off in Kansas.)
on Boot Hill.
According to a map at the entrance to the cemetery, Bob Russell (bottom right)
was the first person buried here after being killed in a showdown with Jules Howard
in 1879. His widow selected the site. Fred Leigh is buried beside him." -
Jeanson, March 2008 photo|
| Willingham went
on to serve out his term as sheriff, but in 1882 he was defeated in his bid for
another two years in office. After losing the election, Willingham moved east
across the Panhandle to Wheeler County, where he operated a saloon in Mobeetie.
Later, he became manager of the Turkey Track Ranch.|
his sources, J. Marvin Hunter described Leigh’s death in an article he wrote for
his Frontier Times Magazine in 1943. Three years later, Amarillo writer John McCarthy
told the story a little differently in his book “Maverick Town: The Story of Old
In McCarthy’s version, the woman who owned the duck was pregnant.
She fainted after seeing Leigh shoot off the bird’s head. McCarthy also listed
Leigh as the second occupant of Boothill,
not the first. But both authors agreed that it all started over a duck.
Hunter said the shooting happened in 1879, but Willingham had not become sheriff
until 1880. McCarthy did not offer a date in his book.
No matter exactly
when Leigh died, or whether he was permanent guest No. 1 or No. 2, Boothill
Cemetery went on to accommodate a total of 32 graves. Twenty-three of the
occupants were men who, like Leigh, died with their boots on.
rock courthouse in Tascosa|
Photo courtesy Barclay
Gibson, January 2003
like most of the people in its cemetery, did not live to enjoy old age. When the
Fort Worth and Denver Railroad cut across the Panhandle,
the tracks did not come to Tascosa. The once lively – and deadly – cowtown faded
away as the nearby railroad town of Amarillo
In 1893, a flood on the Canadian
River destroyed the bridge leading into town as well as many buildings. That
was the last straw for Tascosa,
which soon lost its county seat status to Vega.
The same year, Willingham left the Panhandle
for New Mexico. He ran a ranch near Roswell, before continuing west to Arizona.
He died there in 1925 at the age of 72.
Today, all that remains of old
Tascosa – now the home
of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch
– is the rock building that once served as courthouse and a hill-top collection
of lonely graves.
© Mike Cox
Books by Mike Cox - Order Now|| |