Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Boot-Hill
by [?]

Boot-Hill! Back in the wild old days you found one on the new town’s outskirts and one where the cattle trail came down to the ford, and one was at the summit of the pass. There was another on the mesa overlooking the water-hole where the wagon outfits halted after the long dry drive. The cow-boys read the faded writing on the wooden headboards and from the stories made long ballads which they sang to the herds on the bedding grounds. The herds have long since vanished, the cow-boys have ridden away over the sky-line, the plaintive songs are slipping from the memories of a few old men, and we go riding by the places where those headboards stood, oblivious.

Of the frontier cemeteries whose dead came to their ends, shod in accordance with the grim phrase of their times, there remains one just outside the town of Tombstone to the north. Here straggling mesquite bushes grow on the summit of the ridge; cacti and ocatilla sprawl over the sun-baked earth hiding between their thorny stems the headboards and the long narrow heaps of stones which no man could mistake. Some of these headboards still bear traces of black-lettered epitaphs which tell how death came to strong men in the full flush of youth. But the vast majority of the boulder heaps are marked by cedar slabs whose penciled legends the elements have long since washed away.

The sun shines hot here on the summit of the ridge. Across the wide mesquite flat the granite ramparts of the Dragoons frown all the long day, and the bleak hill graveyard frowns back at them. Thus the men who came to this last resting-place frowned back at Death.

There was a day when every mining camp and cow-town from the Rio Grande to the Yellowstone owned its boot-hill; a day when lone graves marked the trails and solitary headboards rotted slowly in the unpeopled wilderness. Many of these isolated wooden monuments fell before the long assaults of the elements; the low mounds vanished and the grass billowed in the wind hiding the last vestiges of the leveled sepulchers. Sometimes the spot was favorable; outfits rested there; new headboards rose about the first one; for the road was long and weary, the fords were perilous from quicksands; thirst lurked in the desert, and the Indians were always waiting. The camp became a settlement, and in the days of its infancy, when there was no law save that of might, the graveyard spread over a larger area. There came an era when a member of that stern straight-shooting breed who blazed the trails for the coming of the statutes wielded the powers of high justice, the middle, and the low. Outlaw and rustler opposed the dominion of this peace officer. Then the cemetery boomed like the young town. Finally things settled down to jury trials and men let lawyers do most of the fighting with forensics instead of forty-fives. Churches were built and school-houses; a new graveyard was established; brush and weeds hid the old one’s leaning headboards. Time passed; a city grew; the boot-hill was forgotten.

This is a chronicle of men whose bones lie in those vanished boot-hills. If one could stand aside on the day of judgment and watch them pass when the brazen notes of the last trump are growing fainter, he would witness a brave procession. But we at least can marshal the shadowy host from fast waning memories and, looking upon some of their number, recall the deeds they did, the manner of their dying.

Here then they come through the curtain of time’s mists, Indian fighter, town marshal, faro-dealer, and cow-boy. There are a few among them upon whom it is not worth while to gaze, those whose lives and deaths were unfit for recording; there are a vast multitude whose heroic stories were never told and never will be; and there are some whose deeds as they have come down from the lips of the old-timers should never die.