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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Last Drink

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On this Halloween, commentator Scott Thybony brings us the gruesome true story of an outlaw named John Shaw. In 1905, he was gunned down by a sheriff's posse after robbing some gamblers of $300 in silver coins. Shaw was buried in a cemetery east of Flagstaf, near the Canyon Diablo Trading Post. But, his friends thought he deserved a more ceremonious burial. We'll let Scott tell you the rest in his latest Canyon Commentary. 

Ruins of the Canyon Diablo Trading Post stand in stark relief against the wide expanses east of Flagstaff.  Crossing the railroad tracks, I pass the old cemetery where an outlaw once had his last drink.

In the spring of 1905 sometime after midnight, a pair of cowboys from the Hash Knife outfit entered the Wigwam Saloon in Winslow.  John Shaw walked up to the bar with a man calling himself Bill Smythe and ordered whiskey.  As they waited to be served, the stacks of silver dollars on a dice table caught their attention.  The cowboys exchanged a few words unheard by others and suddenly drew their guns.  They scooped up the coins and stuffed them in their pockets, robbing the gamblers of about $300.  Backing out of the saloon, the two left their drinks untouched and disappeared into the night. 

Deputy Sheriff Pete Pemberton arrived on the scene, and Sheriff Chet Houck soon joined him.  Together they began tracking the outlaws and found it to be an easier job than expected.  A trail of silver dollars, dropped as the fugitives fled, led straight to the tracks where they had caught a train heading west.

The sheriff and his deputy boarded the next west-bound train and got off near Canyon Diablo, a trading post and station house.  Strangers had been spotted hiding nearby.  It was dusk when the lawmen began their search, and rounding the corner of a warehouse they unexpectedly came face-to-face with the outlaws.  Instantly both sides began firing at point-blank range in a chaotic exchange of gunfire.  The sheriff emptied his six-shooter, hitting Shaw three times without dropping him.  As the outlaw aimed at the sheriff’s head, the deputy pulled his trigger a fraction of a second quicker.  The bullet hit Shaw, causing his last shot to go wild and saving the sheriff’s life.  

When the smoke cleared, Shaw lay dead on the ground and his partner was seriously wounded.  The lawmen escaped unscathed.  Of the twenty-one shots fired in a matter of seconds at a range of under six feet, only a few found their mark – not unusual for a frontier shootout.  After a hasty coroner’s inquest, they buried the outlaw in an unmarked, shallow grave.  

Late that night a crowd of Hash Knife cowboys gathered back at the Wigwam, drinking heavily and recounting the robbery.  When they realized the outlaws had left their drinks on the bar untouched, a discussion followed and they agreed every man deserved to finish his drink.  At that moment a whistle blew for the westbound freight, and a mob of fifteen drunken cowboys and local citizens rushed outside to hop the train.  They reached Canyon Diablo at dawn and dug up the remains of John Shaw.  Removing the coffin lid, they found the rictus of a smile on the outlaw’s face.  Rigor mortis had set in, so they propped him up and gave him his last drink poured straight from the bottle through his clenched teeth. 

Those at the gravesite began to sober up, and a solemn mood took hold.  After returning the stiff body of Mr. Shaw to the pine box, they tossed in the whiskey bottle.  The men took turns shoveling, and dirt thudded on the coffin lid as a young cowboy sang a hymn in a plaintive voice.

I continue past the graveyard, hearing only the wind sweeping down from the San Francisco Peaks far to the west. 

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.