Gunfight at the Chandler Ranch

Billy Breakenridge gunfight chandler ranch true west magazine
Billy Breakenridge.

According to Cochise County Deputy Sheriff, Billy Breakenridge, Richard “Zwing Hunt,” was one of the baddest of the bad hombres in that hell-for-leather county.  Absolutely fearless and an excellent shooter, it was said of Hunt, “He would do to go tiger hunting with.”

Hunt came from Texas and was from a good family but somewhere along the way he took the wrong fork in the road.  He arrived in Arizona with another Texas hellion named Billy Grounds (Boucher). For a spell the two worked as cowboys for the Chiricahua Cattle Company but soon turned to outlawry.  They began by rustling cattle but soon got into more serious criminal acts when they joined an outlaw gang that included Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, Jim Hughes Joe Hill, Rattlesnake Bill, Old Man Clanton and his sons Ike and Billy.

They ambushed a party of Mexicans, led by bandit chieftain, Jose Estrada, who were smuggling gold bullion and gold coin they had sacked from a mission in Monterrey. They killed everyone in the party and left them in what is known today as Skeleton Canyon in the Peloncillo Mountains that straddles the border of Arizona and New Mexico. They buried the spoils somewhere in the canyon and today it remains one of Arizona’s illustrious lost treasure stories.

Apparently, Hunt and Grounds had some other escapades into Mexico.  An alleged deathbed tale by Hunt claimed they rode out of Mexico following a three-month raid with two four-horse wagons loaded with plunder.

Hunt and Grounds hung out with a rough crowd that included, Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius and the notorious Clanton’s.

Like all lost treasure tales one has to separate fact from fabrication and exaggeration. They may all be connected with the two Skeleton Canyon massacres in 1879 and in July, 1881, along with another in August of that same year at Guadalupe Canyon.

In the fall of 1881 some thirty head of cattle were stolen in the Sulphur Springs Valley and the tracks let to a corral where they had been sold to a local butcher in the town of Charleston on the San Pedro River.  The description of the rustlers matched that of Hunt and Grounds. The pair escaped arrest by hightailing it into Mexico.

The following spring two masked men with rifles entered the office of the Tombstone Mining Company in Charleston and without saying a word, shot and killed chief engineer, M. R. Peel, then disappeared into the darkness.  It was believed they were just planning a robbery but one of them fired his weapon accidentally.

A few days later word reached the sheriff’s office in Tombstone that the two suspects, Hunt and Grounds were holed up at the Chandler Ranch, some nine miles outside of town.

Sheriff John Behan was out with another posse at the time so deputy Breakenridge had the responsibility of going after the bandits.  He gathered a small posse of five men to join him and they rode to the ranch, arriving just before daylight on the morning of March 29th, 1882.

Breakenridge placed two possemen, Jack Young and John Gillespie watching the back door of the ranch house while he and Hugh Allen guarded the front.  Gillespie, apparently aspiring to be a hero, walked up and pounded on the door, shouting, “It’s me the sheriff.” The door opened and Gillespie was shot dead.  Another bullet struck Young through the thigh.

Then the front door opened and a shot rang out hitting Allen in the neck, knocking him to the ground.  Breakenridge grabbed Allen by the shirt and drug him to safety then jumped behind a tree just as another shot hit nearby.  Just then the shooter, Billy Grounds, stepped into the doorway to fire another round. Breakenridge raided his shotgun and fired, hitting Billy in the face.  The outlaw fell, mortally wounded.

In the meantime, Allen had regained consciousness and grabbed a rifle just as Zwing Hunt came around the side of the house.  Both Breakenridge and Allen opened fire hitting the outlaw in the chest. The battle had lasted only two minutes and during that time two men were killed and three wounded including Hunt.

The dead and wounded were loaded up on a milk wagon and hauled into Tombstone.

While recovering from his wounds Hunt managed to escape, with the help of his brother, Hugh, who had ridden over from Texas.  Hugh would later claim on their way back to the Lone Star State the two were jumped by Apaches and Zwing was killed. There is a grave marker claiming to be him in Hunt Canyon in Cochise County.  There are no known photos of him.

Others swore he escaped back to Texas where, on his death-bed, drew a map leading to the buried outlaw treasure.  Folks are still looking for it but so far it’s still out there…. somewhere.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at

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