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This Week in Texas History: Hot-tempered gunman pushed his luck

By Bartee Haile

The surprising thing about the April 7, 1902 death of Barney Riggs was not the violent nature of his demise but that the West Texas gunfighter managed to live so long.

There is no telling how many notches Riggs had on his six-gun before moving to Arizona in the early 1880s. Not that he was a professional killer, just an amateur with a fast draw and a bad temper.

The fact that Riggs always seemed to have “reasonable doubt” on his side kept him out of jail until Sept. 29, 1886. That was the day he shot a friend in the head for fooling around with his unfaithful wife.

This time there was no doubt as to Riggs’ guilt, and the judge saw no grounds for leniency. He started serving a life sentence for murder on New Year’s Eve 1886 in the infamous Territorial Prison at Yuma.

Ten months later, Riggs was stretching his legs in the prison yard when five inmates, all Mexican, made a live-or-die bid for freedom. A convict named Puebla buried a blade in the shoulder of Superintendent Thomas Gate while two accomplices were busy being shot down, one by a guard and the other by the secretary of the prison board.

Attracted by the screams and the familiar sound of gunfire, Riggs jumped in the middle of the mad melee. He grabbed a pistol from a mortally wounded Mexican, rammed the barrel into the chest of the superintendent’s assailant and pulled the trigger. The convict staggered back, and the fearless rescuer finished him with a second shot. 

Stepping over the dead bodies of the five would-be escapees, the convicted killer from Texas helped his chief keeper to the prison infirmary. 

Riggs was the talk of the territory. A Tucson newspaper praised his heroism in a glowing report that took pains to point out that no one was “more brave and took more desperate chances than Barney Riggs” to prevent the escape and further loss of life. 

In record time, Riggs was rewarded with a full pardon. For the rest of his days, his favorite wisecrack was, “I had to kill a man to get into Yuma and killed another to get out.

Riggs returned to West Texas with his young son but not his adulterous wife.  She left town the minute she heard her foul-tempered husband was a free man.

After four lean years in the private sector, Riggs landed a job on the public payroll. Andy Royal, the corrupt and hated sheriff of Pecos County, always had a badge for anybody who was handy with a gun.

The ex-convict had been a deputy for a year or so, when his boss was voted out of office in November 1894. While working at his desk late one night a couple of weeks after the election, the lame-duck sheriff was given a shotgun send-off by an unknown assassin.

The word on the dirt streets of Fort Stockton was that Deputy Riggs was next, but he succeeded in dodging that particular bullet. However, try as he may, he could not avoid getting caught up in a classic West Texas feud.

Reeves County Sheriff G.A. “Bud” Frazer and “Deacon” Jim Miller, the Old West’s original killer-for-hire, already had two shootouts under their gun belts by the time Riggs relocated to Pecos. Neutrality made the most sense, but their marriages to each other’s sisters compelled Riggs to side with the lawman in the private war.

Riggs’ brother-in-law was no match, of course, for a killing machine like Miller. Frazer was playing cards in a Toyah saloon in September 1896, when “Deacon Jim” ended the feud with a fatal one-two punch from a double-barreled shotgun. 

Once again Riggs was on a hit list with a single name – his. He knew it was only a matter of time until Miller or his surrogates came gunning for him.

Riggs did not have long to wait. Three weeks after Bud Frazer’s murder, John Denson and Bill Earhart showed up in Pecos. The pair spent the day hunting their prey and the courage to take him on but found neither.

The next morning, Denson and Earhart burst into the watering hole where Riggs was tending bar for a buddy. Earhart got off the first round but merely grazed Riggs, who returned fire in a heartbeat hitting him right between the eyes.

With the odds suddenly even, Denson turned and ran. Riggs missed him on this way out the door, followed him into the street, calmly drew a bead on the shrinking target and put a bullet in the back of his head.

Following his acquittal in the double homicide, Riggs stayed out of serious trouble for several years. Then in 1901 his wife divorced him and was awarded a cash settlement of $2,000 payable to her son-in-law Buck Chadborn.

On Apr. 7, 1902, Barney Riggs’ temper got the best of him one last time. He confronted Chadborn and, according to three different witnesses, either (a) threatened to strike him with a walking cane, (b) reached in his back pocket for “a handkerchief or something” or (c) cursed the youth less than half his age.

No one claimed the over-the-hill gunfighter was armed. But Chadborn shot him dead anyway, and a jury agreed it was an open-and-shut case of self-defense.

“Unforgettable Texans” brings to life the once famous people no one remembers today. Order your copy for $24.00 (tax and shipping included) by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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