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There is no dearth of interesting tales in Cochise County, the land of Wild West legends. One of the fascinating things about the mountains around us is the variety of caves which have some interesting stories attached to them. There were many caves discovered in Bisbee’s Mule Mountains during the heyday of copper mining. They were wonderlands of glorious mineral formations which visitors compared to King Solomon’s splendor. The Masons and the Elks held ceremonies and grand occasions in these massive caverns that are now mostly backfilled for safety reasons.
The Huachuca Mountains have their own secret caves that were used by Apaches, Mexican bandits, soldiers, smugglers, and other nefarious characters. I'm sure they're still used today for illegal activities. There are tales of lost treasure and of Coronado’s trek to find the cities of gold only to wind up somewhere in Kansas. Now that was disappointing. No wonder he gave up exploring upon a humiliating return to Mexico City around 1542.
However, there are a couple of curious incidents that surround the Pyeatt’s Cave located near the west gate of Ft. Huachuca. Let me tell you about one that occurred in May 1888. John H. Slaughter was the sheriff of Cochise County at the time, a legend in his own right. I’ll save his exploits for another day, but you should know that he brought law and order to the county five years after the gunfight at the OK Corral. He also helped track down Geronimo and arrested many outlaws over his four years as sheriff. But, before I become sidetracked, here’s the story of The Dutch Oven Mystery, so named by Sheriff Slaughter.
One fine spring morning in May, 1888, a U.S. Army patrol was making a sweep of the canyon near Pyeatt’s Cave. As always, they were on the lookout for bandits, Apaches or any sort of troublemakers. There were plenty to be found in those days. The canyons afforded excellent places to hole up to plan illegal activities and were often bases of operation for outlaws.
The soldiers halted their mounts as they stumbled upon an empty campsite in the mesquites and began looking around for any occupants. A spanking new cast-iron Dutch oven stood out like a sore thumb amid the usual camp equipment, which caught the patrol’s attention. Wondering who might be passing through, the men made a more careful search of the area. Not finding any horses nearby, they continued scanning the nooks and crannies of the rocky area. Something looked out of place under a cut bank where the summer rains had eroded a pathway under a rocky outcropping. The smell might have been their first clue and what they must have suspected was quickly confirmed. Under a pile of blankets and gunny sacks, the soldiers found a decomposing man holding a copy of the Police Gazette dated April 20, 1888 in his hands. He’d obviously been deceased for a time since maggots were present.
Captain W. C. Wyeath, who was also the Assistant Surgeon for Ft. Huachuca reined his horse in near the spot to make his examination of the body. After dismounting, I imagine he covered his nose and mouth with his neck scarf. The decedent's skin was quite dark and alongside the body were several items. A pack saddle and bridle, a tall white felt hat, and several bags of provisions had been cached underneath the blankets as well. After his cursory exam, he gave orders for the soldiers to bury the remains and quickly.
After returning to the fort, the captain hand wrote his official report concerning the unknown man's death and sent it off to Sheriff Slaughter. Now, the sheriff had some serious questions about the death after reading the captain’s account. The captain wrote that because of the darkened skin he expected that the deceased was a Mexican peon and that he had determined the man died from natural causes. There was something entirely fishy about the report in the sheriff’s opinion. So, he swore in a coroner’s jury of five men consisting of J. S. Taylor, J. M. Empey, Frank and Thomas Frary, and W. H. Constable. The men rode out to the Huachucas to take a look at the case for themselves.
The jury wasn't squeamish and wasted no time in disinterring the body from the shallow one foot-deep grave. Despite the poor condition of the corpse, it was quickly determined that the man had died from a skull fracture above the right ear. This method of injury was called “buffaloing” and was used by Wyatt Earp in controlling men he intended to arrest. A quick blow above the ear with a gun barrel quickly dropped the man making the arrest less exciting for Wyatt and more painful for the cowboy. However, too hard a blow and the man never got up again.
There were other things that didn’t add up upon a more careful examination. Mexican peons traveled light, looking for day labor. They outfitted themselves with the bare necessities. A serape, a sombrero that not only kept the sun off them, but was used as a makeshift bowl to mix up cornmeal and water for tortillas. They would then bake the tortillas on a heated rock. The additional provisions didn’t fit the captain’s theory. He was completely wrong about the manner of death. And what really stood out was that nice new Dutch oven. Slaughter remarked that even he didn’t travel in such luxury.
The jury ruled out Apaches as the perpetrators since they certainly wouldn’t have left a perfectly good saddle and blankets, not to mention food supplies, the Dutch oven, and the man’s clothing. Mexican bandits would have taken everything except the man’s clothing and the Police Gazette. Nothing indicated the identity of the murdered man who must have been able to read if he’d brought along a newspaper on his expedition.
Not coming to any further conclusions, the sheriff had the man reburied in a proper grave that was piled with enough rocks to keep predators out. They made a marker inscribed, “Name Unknown, died May 1888.” I wish I’d been able to hear the conversation between the sheriff and the army captain. I suspect the captain got a good dressing down at the very least for his sloppy handling of the case.
So, was the man a prospector looking for gold which was common then, or just a cowboy passing through? Did he have a falling out with a partner or was it a random act of violence? Was it a cover-up of some sort by the army? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. The mystery of the murdered man in the western Huachucas remains to this day, the marker of his lonely grave disintegrated long ago in the Arizona sun.
References: So Said the Coroner by Grace McCool
Fort Huachuca: The story of a frontier post by Cornelius C. Smith, Jr.
Texas John Slaughter: Arizona’s Meanest Little Good Guy by Roger Naylor