Bill Downing was one of the most disliked fellows in Old Arizona. He was moody, morose, bad-tempered, sullen and surly. And that was when he was sober. He got downright mean and ugly when he was drinking. Bill was so unlikeable that even members of his gang couldn’t stand him. He was a member of the Burt Alvord gang around Willcox and after his capture for train robbery, spent a few years in the notorious Yuma Territorial Prison. After his release in 1907 he returned to Willcox and opened a saloon called the Free and Easy. It soon became a hangout for all the nefarious rascals in that part of Cochise County. That same year the Arizona Territory had passed a law banning women from “loitering” in saloons but that didn’t stop Bill. He employed an assortment of shady ladies to drink with the customers. He also trained them each to be highly skilled pickpockets, a trade he’d learned in prison. Their victims were always reluctant to complain because of Bill’s reputation as a gunslinger. The law was chomping at the bit to arrest him but the folks around Willcox were so terrorized none would come forward and press charges. That changed, however, when he beat up one of the girls, Cuco Leal and she complained to the town marshal who issued a warrant for his arrest. The best time to serve a warrant to a rascal like Bill was early in the morning while he was still groggy from the previous evening’s imbibing. Arizona Ranger Billy Speed just happened to be passing through Willcox and the marshal enlisted his help in making the arrest.
On the morning of August 5,1908 the two lawmen stood in front of the Free and Easy Saloon and called on the unrepentant old outlaw to step outside. He had just bellied up to the bar demanding more of the “hair of the dog that bit him” from the night before and ignored the lawmen. After Ranger Speed called a second time, Bill emptied his glass, turned and headed for the back door. As he turned around to leave, slick as a whistle, one of the ladies snatched the pistol from his holster. He was going to come around from behind the saloon and get the drop on the two lawmen. Unbeknownst to him, he was unarmed. Billy Speed anticipated his move and armed with his .30-40 Winchester headed in the same direction. The two turned the corner at the same time and faced each other in the classic Old West confrontation.
Bill reached for his pistol. The Ranger, seeing the outlaw’s hand go towards his hip, raised his rifle and fired. Much to Bill’s surprise and chagrin, his holster was empty. One of his gals, (I’d like to believe it was sweet little Cuco Leal,) who had beaten him to the draw. He’d bullied those saloon girls so many times they were just waiting for a chance to turn the tables on him. A coroner’s verdict ruled the killing justified and locals cheered Bill’s demise.
The incident was the inspiration for an axiom that still holds true—don’t reach for your six-shooter unless you’re sure somebody hasn’t snatched it.