Wyatt Goes Rogue Wyatt's Posse vs. Florentino Cruz

Wyatt's Posse vs. Florentino Cruz
Wyatt’s Posse vs. Florentino Cruz

March 21-22, 1882

Fresh from avenging the murder of Wyatt Earp’s brother Morgan by killing Frank Stilwell at the train station in Tucson, Arizona, Wyatt and his Vendetta riders, seven or eight in all, return to Tombstone.

When Sheriff John Behan receives a warrant to arrest the Earp party for the Stilwell killing, the sheriff tries to talk to Wyatt. Wyatt replies, “I have seen you once too often,” and quickly rides out of town with the others, never to return to Tombstone again.

On March 22, the Vendetta riders set off to find the next conspirator, Pete “Spence” Spencer, at his wood camp in the South Pass of the Dragoons. The teamster at the camp, Theodore D. Judah,  later describes what happens next: Wyatt “immediately asked where Pete Spence was…he also asked after Indian Charley [sic] a half-breed, and I told him that he wasn’t there…. He asked me when Pete Spence would be out in the camp again.”

Disappointed by Judah’s responses, Wyatt turns his attention to the camp’s Mexican laborers. With Sherman McMaster serving as his translator, Wyatt asks them if they have seen any horses in the area with saddles on—a sure sign of the Cowboys the posse is seeking. He again receives no help.

Wyatt and his men ride off toward the main road to Tombstone. Judah and a laborer start up a hill to see what Wyatt and his men are up to. “We had not gone 20 feet,” Judah later testifies, “before we heard shooting…. We walked up the hill further [sic] and saw [the Earp posse] on the other side of the road, on top of the hill,” and we watched them for about three minutes.

Laborers Manuel Acosta and Epimania Vegas see Florentino Cruz, a.k.a. Indian Charlie, flee from the Earp party. “The pursuing party spread out, some on each side, and others immediately following,” Acosta later says. Vegas adds, “I saw the man that was shot running and jumping from side to side. I saw him fall.”

Cruz is found with four wounds. Wyatt’s tally is now two for Morgan.

Inside Information

When Wyatt returns to Tombstone on March 21, he is a wanted man. Quickly finishing up his business in town, Wyatt leaves that night and camps two miles north of town. The next morning, someone in the know brings him a copy of the coroner’s report. Listed on it are the chief suspects behind Morgan’s killing: “John Doe” Freis, Hank Swilling and Florentino Cruz, a.k.a. Indian Charlie. This information, no doubt, leads Wyatt to the South Pass wood camp where Cruz works.

Autopsy Results

Dr. George E. Goodfellow, who conducted the autopsy on Cruz’s body, stated that: “The first shot entered at the right temple, penetrating the brain; the second produced a slight flesh wound in the right shoulder; the third entered on the right side of the body near the liver, and made its exit to the right of the spine…. The fourth struck in the left thigh.” The coroner’s jury decided that Cruz died from gunshot wounds “inflicted by Wyatt Earp, Warren Earp, J.H. Holliday, Sherman McMasters [sic], Texas Jack Johnson and two men whose names are unknown to the jury.”

Two Views of a Fight

Judah’s Account

At the coroner’s inquest for the killing of Cruz, teamster Theodore Judah’s testimony conflicts with some of what Wyatt told his biographer Stuart Lake, which Lake recorded in 1929’s Frontier Marshal.

Judah testifies that six riders arrived at Spence’s ranch. He says that during Wyatt’s interrogation, he told Wyatt that he had left Spence behind in Tombstone at 9 a.m. (Actually, Spence had turned himself in to Sheriff Behan for protection against the Earps; he was even allowed to carry a pistol in his jail cell.)

Judah then testifies about what he saw on the hilltop, after hearing the gunshots. He says he saw the Earp party “on the other side of the road, on top of the hill” and that “two or three got off their horses and were there two or three minutes.” Then the Earp party departed down the road, heading east (away from Tombstone), until they disappeared into the hills.

After the Vendetta riders left, Judah says he went back to the camp and worked until evening. Only after that did he go out in search of Cruz and discover his body, riddled with bullets.

Earp’s Account

Nearly half a century later, Wyatt Earp tells Lake that he rode into the camp and immediately recognized Indian Charlie (Cruz). While he questioned Judah, he waited for Cruz to “betray himself.”

Sure enough, Cruz began running up an incline. When the suspect was about 100 yards up the draw, Wyatt ordered crack-shot Sherm McMaster to bring him down. (“Don’t kill him; I want him to talk.”) After the shot rang out, Cruz grabbed his left thigh and collapsed.

Wyatt gathered up Cruz who, with the help of translations from Sherman McMaster, “broke down and offered to tell what he knew of the outlaw plots.” Cruz ratted out the shooters of Virgil Earp (Frank Stilwell, John Ringo and Hank Swilling, the bastard son of the late Jack Swilling, founder of Phoenix) and of Morgan (Frank Stilwell shot Morgan, while Curly Bill Brocius and Hank Swilling shot at Wyatt, but their shots missed). Cruz also said he heard Stilwell brag he had killed one Earp and put another, Virgil, “out of business.” (Cruz also ratted out the perpetrators of the December 15, 1881, attack on Earp family friend John Clum.)

In response, Wyatt asked Cruz, “Neither of my brothers nor I ever harmed you, did we?” Cruz replied no. “Then what made you help kill my brother?”

Cruz told Wyatt that the Cowboys were his friends and that Curly Bill had given him $25 to stand watch. (“That twenty-five-dollar business just about burned me up,” Wyatt admitted to Lake.)

Wyatt challenged Cruz to a duel, giving him the chance to draw his weapon any time he liked. Counting to three in Spanish, Wyatt drew and the “Buntline Special flashed from the holster and roared three times.”

BBB’s Take

Instead of Cruz’s long confession, he probably didn’t have time to say much. It is more likely Wyatt, still reeling from the loss of his favorite brother, snapped and simply killed the hapless Cruz. After all, a mere 96 hours after the assassination of Morgan, two suspects had paid for his death with their lives.

If you believe the legend, a third (and maybe more) was about to join them.

Spying for the Earps

After the killing of Florentino Cruz, Wyatt Earp sent Dan Tipton and Origen “Hairlip” Charlie Smith into Tombstone on a two-fold mission: convince mining magnate E.B. Gage to give them $1,000 to fund the Vendetta posse and scout around to see what Sheriff Behan and the Cowboys were doing. No doubt suspicious, Behan ended up arresting the two on March 23, on charges of resisting arrest and conspiracy.

Both men were released on bail, raised by Bob Hatch (owner of the saloon where Morgan Earp had been shot and killed) and others, on March 25. The hollow charges were dropped.

Smith headed off immediately to rejoin Wyatt’s crew. Tipton stayed in Tombstone until he heard from Wyatt, then he collected the money from Gage (and possibly another $1,000 from unknown donors) and made his way to Henry Clay Hooker’s Sierra Bonita Ranch north of Willcox, where he rejoined the Earp riders on March 27.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

After killing Florentino Cruz, Wyatt Earp had one more deadly encounter at Cottonwood Springs in the Whetstone Mountains. During that gunbattle on March 24, he may, or may not, have killed Curly Bill Brocius and wounded others.

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With several posses on their trail, Wyatt and his men made a plan to flee Arizona by way of Silver City, New Mexico. After a stop at Henry Clay Hooker’s ranch in Arizona, and a near miss with John Behan’s posse, the crew decamped for New Mexico and ultimately Colorado. Arizona authorities were unsuccessful in trying to extradite the fugitives.

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Dan Tipton stayed with the Earp party all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Wyatt and Doc Holliday had a falling out (allegedly over Doc calling Wyatt a “jew boy” based on his budding romantic relationship with Behan’s ex, Josephine Sarah Marcus). The group split up, with Tipton and Doc traveling together to Colorado.

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As author Casey Tefertiller so aptly puts it, “The Vendetta that had enthralled newspaper readers of the West had ended. The flow of blood would quickly be replaced by a flood of ink.”

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Because of the bloodbath, Arizona politics turned ugly. At the next election virtually any candidate aligned with the Earps lost at the polls.

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Recommended: Classic Gunfights: Volume II: Blaze Away! The 25 Gunfights Behind the O.K. Corral by Bob Boze Bell, published by Tri Star-Boze Publications; Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends by Allen Barra, published by Carroll & Graf Publishers; and Wyatt Earp: The Biography by Timothy W. Fattig, published by Talei Publishers.

What do you think?

Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.