What really happened to Curly Bill Brocius

By Marshall Trimble

The other day I received a letter asking, “What really happened to Curly Bill? I’m hearing two different stories.”

I replied, “That’s because there are two different stories.”

During the months following the street fight in Tombstone, the cowboys, after the Spicer Hearings, cleared the Earps of murder and resorted to ambushing their enemies. 

On the evening of December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was ambushed while patrolling the streets of Tombstone. Then, a few weeks later, on March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp was gunned down by an assassin. 

The next day, the coroner’s jury included Curly Bill among seven suspected assassins. But, once again, friends of the suspects provided alibis for them and they were all released, proving once more a cowboy couldn’t be convicted in Cochise County.

Wyatt Earp knew he would only get justice for the shooting of his brothers if he took the law into his own hands. He would be his brothers’ avenger, becoming judge, jury and executioner. Wyatt led a small posse of friends on a vendetta against the perpetrators. 

On March 24 at Cottonwood Springs, in the southern end of the Whetstone Mountains, west of Tombstone, Wyatt and Curly Bill met unexpectedly at the watering hole.

There was a furious exchange of gunfire. Curly Bill and Wyatt were armed with shotguns. Bill fired first, and his burst hit Wyatt’s coat. Wyatt opened up with both barrels and nearly cut Bill in half.

With Curly Bill out of the fight, Wyatt turned his attention to the other cowboys, who were ducking and dodging, firing wildly as they ran for cover. Wyatt dropped the empty shotgun and reached for his pistol, but during the excitement, he’d forgotten the loosened gun belt, which had slid down around his knees. 

To make matters worse, his horse, spooked by the gunfire, was doing a war dance, keeping Wyatt from pulling his Winchester from the scabbard.

The outlaws made their getaway into the woods, firing as they ran, while a preoccupied Wyatt and his mount were doing a circle dance. One of the cowboy’s bullets ripped through the horn on his saddle and another shot off his boot heel. 

Wyatt was able get off a few well-aimed shots into a grove of cottonwoods where the cowboys sought shelter. One of them, Johnny Barnes, suffered a gunshot wound. It’s believed he died later of his wounds.

Afterward, Wyatt rejoined his friends, who fled when the shooting started, and the cowboys sought refuge in the cottonwood trees. It was said they took the bodies to the Patterson ranch on Babocomari Creek and buried them in a secret grave.

Bill’s friends denied their leader died at the hands of Wyatt. Some said he went to Mexico, married a senorita and lived happily ever after. Others claimed he went to Colorado and got a new start; still others said he went back to Texas. 

Did Wyatt kill Curly Bill? Truth is, nobody was ever able to prove he didn’t. The Tombstone Epitaph, the newspaper supporting the Earps, ran a story agreeing with Wyatt’s version; and the cowboy organ, the Nugget, sided with the cowboys.  They claimed he’d been miles away and offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could produce Curly Bill’s dead carcass.

In response the Epitaph offered a $2,000 reward to anyone who could produce an alive Curly Bill. Surely, Curly Bill himself couldn’t resist an offer like that. One thing is certain, no one ever saw or heard from him again.

What do I think?

I think Wyatt killed him. There was no way the cowboys were going to admit Wyatt killed their leader.   

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