Chosen Pace: Water For My Dogs

posted May 18, 2020, 3:01 PM by Bruce Rowe

Numerous stories tell the story of the legendary gunfighter and vigilante, Pace Thunderhill. One said his father was a famous Texas Ranger and his mother was the daughter of a Comanche chief. Another rumor was that he was the descendant of a powerful Kiowa warrior and a woman who was kidnapped from her land-baron father’s sprawling ranch in West Texas. There was even a tall tale that Pace ran away from his family’s farm as young boy and lived in the wilderness alone for almost five years before returning one day as if nothing happened. The following account is the truth about the western warrior patriarch Slag Thunderhill. 

Slag was an imposing figure, standing six-foot-four and weighing 260 pounds. He headed west from Chicago with his wife, two daughters, and son and bought a 200-acre farm outside Dodge City, Kansas.

Slag was no stranger to hard work and it was not unusual for him to be in the fields from sunup to sundown, digging up tree roots or carrying boulders that would strain a mule. Once he set his mind to something, Slag would not be deterred from accomplishing his goal. He was a man of indomitable spirit and honorable character. Pace inherited those qualities from his father as well as his size. At 14 years of age, the younger Thunderhill was already six feet tall and 200 pounds, but he was gangly, awkward, and kind of clumsy, tripping over his big feet several times a day.

One morning, the father and son went to town to pick up supplies. After loading up, Slag told his son, “Watch the wagon. I’m going to the blacksmith to pick up the plow handle. I need to make sure he made it strong enough this time.”

“Yes sir. I’ll be right here.” Pace replied.

A group of trail-hardened Texas drovers who had just driven a herd of longhorns up from the Texas Panhandle two days earlier, staggered out of Long Branch Saloon after a night of hard drinking and carousing. When they passed the Thunderhill wagon, one of them reached into it, grabbed a bag of flour, cut it open, and threw it in the air. The cowboys hooped and hollered as the white powder covered everything in sight.

 Even though he was outnumbered six to one, Pace didn’t hesitate to jump down and confront the men, “What the hell do you varmints think you’re doing?”

One of the drovers responded, “You talking to us, boy?”

“Those are my family’s supplies. You’re going to have to pay for that bag of flour,” Pace said.

One of the drovers reached for his pistol, but his friend grabbed his hand, noticing he wasn’t armed. “He ain’t heeled. They’ll hang you for sure if you kill him.”

“Reckon so.” The drover pulled out a five-dollar gold piece from his pocket, “Here’s the money, boy. Come and get it.”

His father had entrusted Pace to protect the supplies and he wasn’t going to disappoint him. When he walked over and reached for the gold piece, the drover pulled his hand away.

“You’re a little slow, sodbuster.”

Pace grabbed the drover by the shirt, pulled him toward him, and grabbed the gold piece, “I’m fast enough.”

The drover became angry and took a wild swing at Pace who, with a leg sweep, sent the cowboy down on his butt. The other five drovers interceded and began punching and kicking Pace who did his best to defend himself as he fell to the ground.

Slag came walking down the street to see his son being attacked and rushed to help him. Picking up one drover, Slag threw him five feet through the air. He hit the side of the wagon and crumpled to the ground. Slag punched another cowboy so hard that he was unconscious before he hit the dirt. Pace got to his feet and fought alongside his father until all the drovers were lying on the ground.

Marshal Wyatt Earp and Deputy Bat Masterson walked up moments after the skirmish. Surveying the scene, Earp asked, “Having any trouble?”

“No Marshal. Just a little disagreement,” Slag answered.

Masterson walked over to Pace. “You alright boy?”

Pace spit out a mouthful of blood. “I’m fine.”

“You might want to see Doc Adamson before you leave town.”

Bat whispered to Wyatt, “This guy is pretty good with his fists. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

As he listened, a sly grin came to Earp’s face. He answered, “I wasn’t until now.” Then he turned to Slag. “I’ve got a business proposition for you. Come and see me later.”

Earp had many interests besides being a lawman, including being a professional gambler, teamster, and buffalo hunter. He also owned several saloons, mined for silver and gold, and refereed boxing matches. He saw a great opportunity with the tough farmer. Before long, Slag Thunderhill was a bareknuckle prizefighter with over 20 winning fights. Earp and Masterson earned a percentage of the winnings from his victories.

Dodge City had been a frontier cow town for several years but began to lose its allure to men of reckless blood when it civilized itself. Virgil Earp was the town constable in Prescott, Arizona and wrote his brother about the opportunities in the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone. Wyatt relayed the information to Slag.

“We got a chance to make us some big money out west. You’re starting to get a reputation around these parts and we’re having to give odds to get you a fight. In Tombstone, we can start fresh.”

Slag was hesitant about uprooting his family. “I don’t know, Wyatt. I’ve got used to being in Kansas. My kids have taken a liking to it too.”

“You got maybe two, three years of fighting left before your body will start breaking down on you. If you care about your family, this is your chance to save up some money for them. My brother Virgil knows I’ve got a good deal here and he wouldn’t ask me to hit the trail if he wasn’t dang sure that it was better out there.”

“Let me think on it a spell,” Slag said.

“I’ll sweeten the pot for you. I’ll give twice what you paid for your piece of land. If you like it out there, you’ve made a profit. If you don’t, I’ll give you back the ranch and you can keep the money too. You can’t lose either way”

“That’s not much of a deal for you,” Slag said.

Wyatt grinned. “I’m a gambler at heart and I like playing my hunches. You ain’t never let me down yet.”

Slag made an equally generous offer to the struggling Rabb family. “You take care of my place and anything you make is yours to keep.” He handed Jethro Rabb 300 dollars. “This will help until you get back on your feet.”

The bank had foreclosed on the Rabb farm two months earlier and Slag had been helping Josh Rabb out since then. Pace knew how softhearted his dad was and commented, “There’s no way that, if we come back, you’re going to tell Mr. Rabb he has to move out.”

“You know it and I know it, but he don’t need to know it,” Slag said. He put his arm around his son’s shoulder. “You’re getting too smart for your own good.”

Wyatt Earp and Masterson were already in Tombstone and setting things up before Slag and his family set out for the Arizona Territory. It was an 850-mile journey so the Thunderhill family took two wagons filled with personal belongings they didn’t want to leave behind. Slag drove the lead wagon with his wife Susannah and Pace followed with his two sisters, Rosalie and Abigail. They camped at Parker Canyon Lake.

“We’re about a day and a half out of Tombstone,” said Slag. “We’ll rest up here and leave the day after tomorrow. Pace, why don’t you and your sisters go see if you can catch some catfish for dinner.”

“Yes sir,” Pace replied.

The three Thunderhill children were about a quarter mile from their campsite when they heard a series of gunshots. As they ran back to the wagons, they saw 15 or 20 riders leaving the area. They couldn’t see their faces, but saw red sashes tied around their waists, waving in the wind. Slag and Susannah were shot multiple times, the wagons were ransacked, and the horses were missing.

Pace knew he had to protect his sisters. While he was heartbroken and just wanted to sit down and cry, he knew that was not an option. “I’ll bury Ma and Pa. You find something to carry water. We’ll leave at sunset when it’s cooler.”

When they arrived in Tombstone, Pace asked the first man he saw, “I’m looking for Wyatt Earp.”

“Try the Oriental Saloon.”

Pace found Wyatt Earp playing cards with Masterson and Doc Holliday. He explained what happened to his mother and father and mentioned the red sashes.

Holliday grumbled, “The Cowboys.”

“What?” Pace asked.

“The men wearing those red sashes work for Ike Clanton. They operate along the Mexican border, stealing cattle, robbing stagecoaches, and ambushing settlers and teamsters. They call themselves The Cowboys,” Wyatt explained.

When Masterson saw the look in Pace’s eyes, he warned, “Don’t be thinking about going after them, they’re too many of them. They’ll shoot you down.”

Pace vowed, “Right now, I need to take care of my sisters. I’ll deal with those responsible for my parents’ deaths when I get that done.”

“How you going to do that?” Holliday inquired.

“We got kin who live in Vista, California. I reckon I’ll take my sisters there, then come back and carry out the deal that Pa had with Mr. Earp.”  

“I ain’t holding you to that. I’d be obliged to pay for you and your sisters to go back to Kansas,” Earp said.

“We won’t be doing that, I’ll do what Pa came out here to do.”

“I know better than to argue with a Thunderhill.”

*  *  *

After safely getting his sisters to Vista, California, Pace returned to Tombstone. Even though he was only a 17 year-old boy, Pace now stood six-foot-six and weighed 225. He wasn’t quite as strong as his father, but he was considerably quicker. He also saw every one of his father’s fights and helped him train. So, while Pace did not have any actual ring experience, he was still very prepared to take up where his father left off. He also had an extra motivation that burned red hot in his soul.

Against regular cowboys who thought they could fight, Pace ended the bouts quickly, usually with a series of powerful body punches, bringing his opponents to their knees, gasping for breath and unable to continue. On those rare occasions when one of the Clanton gang wanted to challenge him, Pace inflicted the greatest amount of pain and suffering, while keeping the murderous bushwhacking buscadero (gunfighter) upright for the longest possible time.

There was nobody tougher than Slag Thunderhill when it came to fighting, but like Masterson reminded Pace, “Bareknuckles got no chance against hot lead.”

If he was going to get justice and revenge, Pace was going to have to become as proficient with guns as he was with his fists. Under Earp and Holliday’s tutelage, along with his own natural athletic skills, it didn’t take long for Pace to be able to skin a smokewagon (pistol) in the blink of an eye.

Pace paid Tully O’Brien, the town gunsmith, to custom fit and balance several Colt .45s to his big hands. The young man practiced fast drawing a thousand times a day in his room then would go out of town to improve his accuracy with his pistols and rifles, a Sharps 50 and a Winchester 73. Pace wanted desperately to put a bullet between Ike Clanton’s eyes, but Earp discouraged him from being too hasty.

“Pull in your horns, we’ll get Ike. You go after him now and they’ll hang you for dang sure. He’s done bought the local law. I’m working on getting appointed United Marshal for the territory, then he’s all yours.”

“Reckon so,” Pace grumbled.

“In the meantime, let’s take his money,” Holliday coughed up a mouthful of blood as he took a long swig of whiskey from his personalized flask.

Ike Clanton hated the Earps, Holliday, Masterson and everybody associated with them. It stuck in his craw that nobody could defeat Pace in a fight. When Ike heard about a brutal fighter from St. Louis, he sent a telegram to Big Jim Haverty, offering him ten thousand dollars to fight Pace. Big Jim looked like he was part grizzly bear. He was extremely hairy, including a full thick beard. The only place on him that didn’t have hair was the top of his head, which was shaved. He weighed 350 pounds, his legs were the size of small tree stumps, and his arms were pile driver strong. Clanton wasted little time showing him around town and boasting, “This is the toughest, fightiest hombre there ever was. I’m taking all bets for anybody who wants to put their money on Pace Thunderhill!”

Holliday warned Pace. “I’ve heard a lot about this Haverty fella’. Many a fighter has busted a knuckle or even a hand hitting that rock-hard head of his.”

There were thousands of dollars being wagered on the fight. Earp offered Pace a chance to back out. “I could tell everybody that you’re hurt and can’t fight.”

“Obliged, but I reckon I’ll go through with it.” Pace handed Wyatt a stack of money. “This is every cent I got.”

Wyatt, Bat and Doc went to see Ike Clanton. “We’ve got twenty thousand…all on Thunderhill,” said Earp.

Clanton laughed when he saw the stack. “I’m going to look forward to taking your money. You’ve been on a winning streak for too long.”

*  *  *

Big Jim kept his fists alongside his face then hunched over, exposing only that big bald head as an inviting target. Pace had his own strategy. He snapped out his right arm and the heel of his hand thudded the bald head with such force that Big Jim didn’t know what hit him. After being hit a dozen times, he raised his hands higher to protect his head, leaving his ribs exposed. Pace crushed his fists into both sides of the larger man. The crowd could hear the rush of air escape his lungs. When Big Jim dropped his elbows to protect his ribs, Pace hit him a dozen times in the face.

The routine repeated over and over: heel of the hand to the top of the head, crushing body blows , then brutal right crosses and left hooks to the face. No matter what Big Jim did, he couldn’t protect himself from all three areas at the same time. Finally, Pace saw the opening he was looking for and unleashed a barrage of punches that did not stop until Big Jim fell to the ground. He laid there motionless.

Clanton couldn’t believe he had lost everything and reluctantly paid off Wyatt, Bat, and Doc. Returning to his ranch, he screamed at his brother Deke, “I want everybody out on the trails. Nothing gets through this territory without us getting our piece of it!”

Pace bought three wolf-hybrid puppies from a Tucson animal breeder and had been training them. He knew how desperate Clanton had become since the big fight. He’d be looking for easy prey on the trail. This would be Pace’s chance to really put the pressure on the murderous outlaw. He loaded up his two pack horses with ammunition and grub. He was headed out of town when he passed Earp and Holliday.

“Where you going?” Earp asked.

“Hunting,” Pace answered.

“How long?”

“A week or so.”

Earp smiled. “Good hunting.”

When Pace was out of earshot, Holliday asked, “You know what he’s hunting?”

“Cowboys.”

*  *  *

Pace traveled along the ridgeline that ran parallel to the main stage trail for two days before he saw a dust cloud in the distance. Pulling out his binoculars, he saw a dozen riders wearing red sashes. He followed them from a distance, then when they attacked a small wagon train, Pace moved in and killed them all. He sent the wagon train on its way, then unsaddled the horses of the dead men and took them to a nearby ranch.

He told Henry Hudkins, a friend of the Earps, “I thought you might want some horses. If you want guns and saddles, they’re down by the old oak tree at Camino Gulch. You can bury the bodies or leave them for the vultures. Right now I need some water for my horses and dogs.”

“Help yourself,” Hudkins said. “Thanks for the horses. I’ll send a couple of hands over there, I reckon.”

Pace always made sure to take care of his animals before he thought about himself.

He ambushed two more groups of marauding outlaws before heading back to Tombstone. It was only after he returned that he found out about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Pace rode with Earp and Holliday until they had gotten rid of most of the Cowboys, but not all of them.

Holliday’s health continued to deteriorate. He went to Glenwood Springs in Colorado for medical treatment where he eventually died of tuberculosis. Wyatt Earp left for San Francisco with Josephine Marcus, but before he left, he deputized Pace and gave him some arrest warrants. Clanton, Lee Renfro, G.W. Swingle, Longhair Sprague, and Billy Evans had moved their illegal operations to a ranch near Springerville, Arizona. Two other Cowboys, The Calico Kid and Broken Nose Cassidy went to California to start their own gang.

Pace figured to deal with Clanton before heading west and was about 200 yards away from their ranch when he spotted the outlaws coming down the trail. Pace took out his Winchester 73 and hid behind a boulder. When Ike and his cohorts got within 25 yards of his position, Pace called out, “I’ve got warrants. Drop your guns or I’ll drop you.”

Ike and the others weren’t about to surrender, no matter what the situation. They drew their pistols and began shooting in the direction of Pace, who calmly returned fire, killing Renfro, Sprague and Evans. Pace walked into the open and set his Winchester down. He moved toward Clanton and Swingle who dismounted from their horses to face him. They reached for their pistols, but Pace’s aim was as true as his draw was quick. Clanton felt the bullet go deep into his chest and fell backward. His last words to Pace were, “I finally win, you won’t be able to hang me.”

*  *  *

When he got back to Tombstone, Pace paid the freight charges for an entire boxcar to the west coast. Two days later, he boarded a train with his horses, dogs, weapons, and ammunition and bid farewell to the town. After arriving in San Diego, he geared up and headed north.

The Calico Kid and Broken Nose Cassidy’s hideout was in Deer Springs, north of Escondido. It was well fortified and the law knew to stay out of there. There was a sign along the trail that read:” Trespassers Will Be Shot Dead and Deader.”

The sign was more of an invitation than a deterrent to Pace who kept riding. Several armed men saw him stop in front of a water trough by the livery stable. One asked, “Didn’t you see the sign?”

“I saw it,” Pace responded.

The men pulled out their pistols and began shooting into the dirt, just inches from the horses’ hoofs. The animals spooked and Pace raced off as the men laughed. Thirty minutes later, he returned and approached the seven men inside the saloon.

“As I was riding out of town, my horses and dogs heard you laughing and got kind of upset. They thought you were laughing at them. I tried to tell ‘em that you were idiots and laughed for no reason at all. Now if you come outside and tell them how sorry you are, I’m sure they’ll feel a whole heap better.”

One grizzled-looking outlaw responded, “You want us to do what? You’re plum loco, mister.”

The men started laughing again and Pace’s voice was a warning of impending doom. “There you go laughing again. I know a way to stop that.”

When the first man made the slightest move toward his holster, Pace drew his pistols, quickly killing all seven men. When he walked out of the saloon, The Calico Kid and Broken Nose Cassidy were waiting for him in the street.

Cassidy called out, “We heard you killed Ike and were headed our way. We’ve been a waitin.”

“No need to wait no more,” Pace said.

“You afraid of dying, Thunderhill?” The Kid asked. “Cause it’s riding fast for you!”

“Any man who’s afraid of dying is too afraid of living,” Pace said. “Men like us aren’t supposed to be on this earth too long anyway. Let’s get to it. I’m either going to hell or back to town for dinner.”

The Calico Kid was mighty fast and his shot was only a microsecond slower than Pace’s. The two outlaws were hit, but Pace also took a round to his shoulder. He continued firing until the hammers on his pistols were hitting spent cartridges and the Kid and Broken Nose were both lying dead in the dirt.

Pace went to visit his sisters and recovered from his wound at their place. When he was well enough to travel, he got back on the trail. Even though the Cowboys were finished, there was still a lot of work for Pace Thunderhill.

Many an outlaw is pushing up daisies on boot hills throughout the Wild West because when they ran across the tall stranger with the fists of steel and a lightning fast draw, they failed to remember two things. Don’t deny him water for his dogs and never ask him to leave before he’s ready. He’ll leave at his own Chosen Pace.

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