View from Canyon Diablo
Thomas Calabrese –The town of Canyon Diablo (Navajo: Kin Ligaii) was located in Coconino County, Arizona, on the edge of the arroyo Canyon Diablo. It originated in 1880, due to construction delays attributed to the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad ordering the wrong span length railroad bridge to cross the canyon. For two years the transcontinental railroad ended at Canyon Diablo while another bridge was manufactured. On the other end of the arroyo, work continued from Needles, California.
Crews were sent ahead to survey the route, prepare the grade and cut the railroad ties in preparation for the arrival of the iron rails. Pillars for the bridge span were excavated from the Kaibad Limestone and shaped on site by Italian stonemasons.
Canyon Diablo was originally a small mobile business community, catering to the needs of railroad men. Once the railroad stopped at the edge of the canyon, this town quickly produced numerous saloons, dance halls and gambling houses, all of which remained opened 24 hours a day. No lawmen were employed by Canyon Diablo and it quickly became a very dangerous place. Its population was mostly tough railroad workers, ruthless outlaws and professional gamblers. Every man knew he was on his own once he entered town. He knew that while it might not have been survival of the fittest, it was definitely survival of the toughest and meanest.
The town was designed with two lines of buildings facing one another across rock bed. It was named ‘Hell Street’, because every vice known to man could be found there. At any moment, a man could end up in Satan’s lair, begging for mercy.
Scattered about the vicinity of downtown were a large number of tents and hastily constructed shacks that served as local residences. Within a short time, the town had 5,000 residents. A ‘Boot Hill’ (cemetery) was hastily constructed on the outskirts of town. Ten bodies a day made their way to their final resting place on the barren parcel of ground, and very few deaths were from natural causes.
A regular stagecoach route from Flagstaff to Canyon Diablo was often the victim of robberies and kidnappings. Molly McCluskey was a young school teacher on her way from Gallup, New Mexico to Vista, California. The stagecoach she was on was held up, ten miles east of Canyon Diablo. The driver and guard were killed. Molly and two other women were kidnapped and the two male passengers were badly wounded.
Clinton B. Fisk, was one of the new owners of the Atlantic Pacific Railroad. He was extremely irate that supply trains, wagons and stagecoaches were being ambushed and robbed. He was more concerned about delays and not meeting up with the Southern Pacific at the scheduled time, than he was about human life. He voiced his extreme displeasure at the turn of events with several of his men at his office in Kansas City. “Gall darn it! I don’t give a hoot if some sandblasted varmint wants to get himself killed on Hell Street! I can always hire more men. What I won’t stand for is somebody ruining my business and costing me money. I’m having enough trouble getting engineers and surveyors to go work on that stretch of track!”
Boone Grier replied, “We hired a marshal and paid him three times more than any other marshal in Arizona, including the Earps. He was sworn in at 3:00pm and was buried at 8:00 pm. Five more town marshals followed, none lasted more than a month and all were killed in the line of duty.”
“We can handle the usual riffraff, but Colonel Shinbow Ashworth and his gang are the ones causing most of the trouble,” Josh Tremayne said.
Fisk demanded, “What are we going to do about Ashworth!”
Josh Tremayne swallowed and attempted to explain, “He commanded the 5th Regimental Georgia Calvary. After the war, he took what was left of his men and headed west. They’ve cut a wide swathe through the west. Some people say he’s on some kind of divine mission to make up for what the North did to the South.”
“He’s not an easy man to find and nobody is inclined to stand up against him,” Boone Grier said.
Josh thought for a second and threw out a suggestion, “I have heard of one hombre who has the reputation of being mighty good with a gun and even better with his fists and a knife. His father was a Texas Ranger and his mother was the daughter of a Yaqui Indian chief. He’s built quite a reputation in South Texas.”
“I gave the McCluskeys my word that I’d do my best to try and get their daughter back,” Fisk said, “I wouldn’t want to disappoint one of our biggest investors.”
“That could be a tough promise to keep, sir. When women git’ taken, they hardly ever come back,” Boone said. “She could even be in the Valley of Tears by now.”
“What’s this hombre’s name?” Fisk asked.
“Whip Coltrane,” Josh volunteered.
Fisk asked, “Do you know where to find him?”
“Last I heard, he could be reached in Del Rio, Texas. He’s got a ranch in San Felipe Springs and does some bounty hunting and tracks border bandits into Mexico.”
Fisk asked, “How come you ain’t mentioned this fella’ before?”
“I only know about him from a friend whose sister was taken into Mexico by Comancheros. Coltrane brought her back and, in the process, left a lot of dead bodies for the buzzards and worms.”
“Sounds like just the man we need,” Fisk said.
Josh rubbed his chin, “I ain’t never mentioned him because I ain’t never known him to leave Texas.”
“Give him an offer he can’t refuse,” Fisk said, “Five thousand up front and ten thousand more if he gets the job done.”
Young Coby Yaeger rode the six miles from Del Rio to the Circle WC ranch with a telegram. He dismounted and walked into the large barn, “Hey Whip, you in here?”
Whip Coltrane was in the far stall, brushing his horse. He looked up and responded, “Coby!”
The young boy rushed over, “You got a telegram. Amos thought you’d would want to see it right away. He told me to wait for your answer.”
The telegram read; Meet me at the El Paso Safford Hotel on the 14th. 5000 dollars for showing up. Offer to follow. Clinton B. Fisk, Atlantic Pacific Railroad.
Coby asked, “Do you have an answer?”
“Tell Amos to send, “I’ll be there.”
Fisk was sitting in the lobby of the Safford Hotel with Tremayne and Grier smoking cigars. The railroad tycoon was evaluating patrons coming through the front entrance. He prided himself at being a good judge of character, so he was sure that he could pick out Whip Coltrane at his first glance.
Whip stood 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighed 240 pounds and towered over most people. He had high cheekbones and an olive complexion that he inherited from his Indian mother. He had his father’s deep blue steady eyes that missed nothing. As soon as he stepped into the doorway, Whip scanned the entire lobby before taking one step into the hotel.
Fisk liked what he saw so far and waved his hand to get the Texan’s attention. When he walked over, Fisk said, “I saw the way you entered, kind of cautious like.”
“I reckon, I’ve gotten used to looking first, then stepping second. Are you Fisk?” Whip asked.
“I am, and you must be Coltrane. You’re a tall fella. I’m not used to looking up to any man.”
Whip responded, “Legs are long enough to reach the ground, I reckon. Something tells me that you don’t look up to any man.”
“Let me tell you what my offer is,” Fisk said.
Whip already knew what was coming, “Clean up Canyon Diablo and stop the problems for your railroad.”
Fisk was impressed, “Mighty good guess.”
“No guess, I would have never come this far unless I did some checking up on you.”
Fisk nodded to Josh, who pulled out an envelope and handed it to Whip. “Five thousand, like I promised.”
Whip didn’t bother to count it, just put it in his pocket, “I kind of like to stay around familiar surroundings. My loop doesn’t swing around Arizona.”
Fisk tried his best to be persuasive, “I thought you might make an exception in this case. There are two good reasons for you to widen your loop, a lot of good people are getting hurt and the country needs this railroad. I’ll pay you a thousand a month and when the job is done, I’ll give you a ten-thousand-dollar bonus.”
“It’s going to be bloody,” Whip warned.
Fisk retorted, “It’s already been bloody. It’s time that outlaws start to bleed.”
“It will take me about ten days to get there,” Whip said.
“There’s a general store in town. I’ll let the owner know to give you whatever you need.”
Whip said, “Just tell him I’m a scout for the railroad. I don’t want anybody knowing what I’m there for. That will give me a chance to work in at my own gallop.”
“I’m not one for giving away my money, but nothing is going to give me greater pleasure then to pay you that 10 thousand bonus if you…” Fisk didn’t need to finish his statement. It was glaringly evident what he meant.
Whip smiled, “If I live.” You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that.”
When he arrived at Canyon Diablo, Arizona. Whip Coltrane spent the next three days figuring out who were the major troublemakers. Hutch Nagel was a gambler, card shark and very good with a six-gun. While watching him play, Whip saw how he was manipulating the cards and apparently one of the players also had his suspicions, “You’re cheating!”
Hutch Nagel challenged the man, “Let’s see if you’re better with a gun then you are at poker.”
The railroad worker reached for his weapon; Hutch shot him down before he had even cleared leather. He looked down at the dead man on the floor and sneered, “Anybody else got a problem with my card playing?”
No one answered.
Whip remembered what he saw and came back the next night and asked, “Mind if I sit in?
Hutch grinned, “Pull up a seat, pardner.”
After three hours of high stakes gambling, it was down to just Hutch and Whip sitting at the table. Two hours after that, Hutch was down to his last few chips and Whip was winning big. Hutch was confused at how things had turned out, “You’re a hell of a gambler, Mister”
Whip responded, “I’m also a better cheater than you.”
Hutch threw down his cards and stood up, “You calling me a cheater?”
Whip slowly stood up and made an offer, “If you tell everybody that you’re a low-down cheating snake, I’ll let you crawl out of here.”
The gambling hall went silent. No one had ever talked to Hutch Nagel that way and the patrons were waiting for his reaction, which they were knew would be swift and deadly. As soon as Hutch made the slightest move, a bullet went deep into his chest. He fell back in his chair and slowly died with a look of surprise on his face. Whip picked up his winnings and left. While walking down the street, he gave the money to a group of Chinese laundry workers and homeless children.
Over the next two weeks, Whip would target an outlaw every day and eliminate him, then return to his camp five miles out of town.
When the stagecoach arrived in town one day, Whip asked the driver, “You looking for a guard?”
The driver grumbled, “The only thing that will get you killed quicker than being the town marshal is being a guard on this run.” Whip tipped his hat and walked off.
Two days later, Whip was waiting at the stagecoach station, located twenty-five miles outside of Canyon Diablo.
“What the hell you doing out here?” The driver asked.
“I thought you might need some company on the way into town.”
“This is the most dangerous part of the trip,” The driver said.
Whip said, “I aim to find that out for myself.”
After the station agent and his helpers changed the team of horses, Whip climbed up next to the driver with three loaded rifles. The driver sensed that this was not an ordinary man, so he kept his mouth shut and rode out.
Ten miles up the trail, a group of Indian outlaws came out of the brush. The driver started to pull back on the reins.
“What the hell are you doing?” Whip asked.
“They’re just going to rob the stage and passengers. If we don’t fight back, then they don’t hurt us.” The driver responded.
“Ride on!” Whip ordered and pulled out one of his rifle and shot five Indians off their horses. When the stage came to a bend in the trail, Whip told the driver, “Let me off here and ride on down a ways and wait for me. If I ain’t there in five minutes, leave without me.” Whip jumped down from the stage and found cover behind a boulder. When the remaining 10 Indian outlaws came riding up, he killed all of them, then walked down to meet the stage.
Before the stage reached Canyon Diablo, Whip got off, “You ain’t never seen me.”
The driver nodded and rode on.
Over the next two weeks, eleven hardcases were killed in town and eighteen more died on the trails outside of town. The tension was so thick in Canyon Diablo, you needed a Bowie Knife to cut it.
Down by the railroad supply yard was a makeshift boxing ring. Townspeople liked to bet on the pick-up fights. It was brutal and everything was legal except eye gouging and biting. The champion of the town was a monster of a man, called Ridge Brazos. He was six foot eight inches tall and weighed three hundred pounds. His face and body were a mass of scars and disfigurement, with fists like pile-drivers. The man who managed Brazos was Roy Benter, and he took all bets at five-to-one odds. Benter offered 100 dollars to any man who was foolish or brave enough to get in the ring with Brazos. In the past, Brazos killed six men and severely injured ten more. If men around town weren’t so desperate to survive, they would have declined the offer, no matter what the amount.
Whip watched Brazos fight twice and saw how he handled himself in the ring. Benter made his usual offer to the large crowd. “One hundred dollars! There’s got to be one brave man out there who is willing to step forward.”
“I’m right here,” Whip walked up to Benter, “I’d like to place a bet too.”
Benter laughed, “It seems to me that Whip is betting FOR himself and against Brazos. Maybe there’s an innuendo here? Maybe the bets were usually much smaller?
Whip pulled out two thousand dollars and set it down on the table, “All on me…five to one odds.”
“That’s a mighty big bet.”
Whip responded, “If your man is as good as you say he is, then you shouldn’t have any problem taking my money.”
Benter was damn confident that his fighter could beat this stranger, but ten thousand dollars was a lot to lose. It would put him out of business, if something went wrong. He looked around and saw all eyes were on him. If he didn’t take the bet, it wouldn’t look good, “Okay, you got a bet.”
Whip was prepared. He slipped on a pair of fingerless rawhide gloves with extra padding over his knuckles. He had them specially made by a saddle maker. He had seen enough men bust their hands on somebody’s jaw or rock-hard skull, make the same mistake. Brazos’ head looked as hard as any he’d seen.
The brutish fighter had a serious flaw that Whip aimed to exploit. Brazos would come to the center of the ring with his hands held low and glare at his opponents for several seconds. He enjoyed seeing fear in his opponent’s eyes, afterward he would stalk and inflict maximum punishment, before putting them down for the count.
As soon as the fight started, Whip rushed out and unleashed a barrage of punches before Brazos even knew what was happening. Whip’s relentless assault left the undefeated champion a crumpled unconscious heap of bone and flesh, lying on the canvas in less than twenty seconds.
Benter stared in disbelief, “I didn’t think that any man could go through my boy like you just did.”
“There ain’t no rules on how easy or hard it’s supposed to be,” Whip replied.
Benter retorted, “You didn’t give my fighter a chance to fight back! I ain’t paying you.”
Whip reached over and pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it in Benter’s face, “My money.”
“You ain’t gonna’ use that.”
Whip slapped the pistol against Benter’s right ear, “That’s one way…want to see another?”
Benter hesitated and Whip slapped the pistol against his left ear. Blood flowed down both sides of his neck.
The fight manager screamed out, “Enough!” and handed the money to Whip.
Whip suggested strongly, “You need to git’ out of town with your fighter.”
“You took all my money,” Benter sighed.
Whip dropped five hundred dollars in Benter’s lap, “Be out of Canyon Diablo by high noon tomorrow and the money is yours.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice. We were thinking about going to San Diego anyway.” Benter grabbed the cash and called to Ridge Brazos who was coming out of his unconscious state, “Let’s go!”
To this time, nobody knew what Whip Coltrane’s name was. When asked who he was, Whip used the single name, Rio, after the Rio Grande to go by. Canyon Diablo was a lot more law abiding than it was before Whip arrived, but there was still unfinished business.
One of Colonel Shinbow Ashworth’s men, Durango Webb, was amazed how quiet things were in Canyon Diablo since the last time he was there. As he exited Kitty’s saloon, after six shots of whiskey, he saw one man facing two in a fight on Hell Street. The single man outdrew both men and killed them. As Durango walked past the dead bodies in the street, he got a good look at the man’s face who did the shooting. Durango mounted up and rode out of town.
When he got back to camp, Colonel Shinbow Ashworth approached him, “I sent you into town to get some tobacco, where is it?”
Durango replied, “Remember when we were talking about this hombre, Rio, who has been making a reputation for himself in Canyon Diablo?”
“I do,” Ashworth replied.
“His name is not Rio, his name is Whip Coltrane.”
“And that is supposed to mean something to me?” Ashworth answered.
“If you spent any time in South Texas like me, the name Coltrane would mean a lot to you. I was riding with the McKenzie Rabb gang in Brownsville, when Coltrane killed the whole bunch!”
“You’re still alive,” Ashworth pointed out, “How did that happen?”
“Lucky for me, I was in Juarez at the time. By the time I got back, the Texas Rangers, were all over the place. I put the spurs to my horse and headed north, eventually joined up with you,” Webb said.
“Do you think that he’s coming for the girl?” Ashworth asked.
“I don’t know, Colonel. With a man like Coltrane, he comes for everything.”
“Molly! Come over here,” Ashworth gestured to a young woman washing clothes in a barrel. She walked over and meekly stood there. “You like it here, don’t you, Molly?”
The fearful young girl responded, “Yes sir.”
“Go back to work,” Ashworth said dismissively and Molly walked off.
Whip made a lot of enemies and very few friends in Canyon Diablo. One of his friends was a cantankerous old wrangler, Bud Spicer, who operated the livery stable. Whip gave Bud fifty dollars a week to inform him of anything out of the ordinary happening in town and especially if any strangers arrived.
Colonel Ashworth was shrewd and calculating. His camp was located twenty miles west of Canyon Diablo, inside a box canyon. It was impossible to enter with being noticed and was heavily guarded. The Colonel rarely left the confines of his sanctuary except to lead raids and robberies. When he needed anything, he would send one of his men to get it. Ashworth thought it was important enough to lead his men in Canyon Diablo to eliminate Whip Coltrane.
The fifteen armed riders armed with pistols & rifles entered town and rode over to the livery stable. Ashworth ordered, “Feed and water our horses!”
“Yes sir,” Bud Spicer smiled a toothless grin.
As soon as the men dismounted, Bud called to his stable hand, a young boy about 12 years-old, “Quint, go find Mr. Rio and tell him that Colonel Shinbow Ashworth is in town with some of his men. Go!”
The young boy raced off behind the building to deliver the message. As Ashworth led his men down the middle of the street, he told them, “Find Coltrane!”
The men spread out and began walking in and out of the saloons and gambling houses, looking for their target.
At the other end of town, Whip was sitting on a bench outside the general store. Quint rushed up, “Mr. Spicer told me to tell you that Colonel Shinbow Ashworth and his men are in town.”
Whip gave Quint a five dollars gold piece and a warning, “Go find a place to hide.”
As the men searched in vain for Whip, he was actually stalking them. As one of Ashworth’s men came walking down the alley, Whip stepped out and stabbed him in the back. He set the body behind a wooden crate.
Three other men were walking down the wooden sidewalk. Whip stepped out and confronted them, “You looking for me?”
Before the three men could draw, Whip shot them dead and disappeared.
From a rooftop, he shot three more. When he started hearing gunshots, Ashworth had a sickening feeling that he made a serious error by coming into town. With his remaining men, he ordered, “Let’s get out of here.”
By the time they reached the livery stable, Whip was waiting for them. He was holding a Winchester rifle in his hands and called out, “I’m here to put you out of business.”
Colonel Ashworth looked at the six men with him, then responded, “Whip Coltrane, I presume.”
Durango was the only one who knew what Coltrane was capable of and was sweating bullets.
Whip made an offer that he knew would not be accepted, “Drop your guns and I’ll let you ride out.”
Durango was the only one to accept the offer. When he reached to unbuckle his holster, Ashworth shot him in the back of the head, then looked defiantly at Whip, “Surrender is not an option.”
Whip answered, “I kinda’ figured that would be your strategy.”
“You’re outnumbered, it is you that should drop your gun,” Ashworth countered.
Whip shot the man standing furthest away with the Winchester then dropped it. He then drew and fired five shots from his Colt 45 so quickly that it sounded like only one shot. Ashworth was the last man standing.
“Dying in battle is no disgrace,” Ashworth said defiantly, and reached for his pistol.
Whip fired the last bullet from his Colt 45 and the reign of terror of Colonel Shinbow Ashworth officially ended at that moment. Molly McCluskey was found and returned to her parents. Whip Coltrane met with Clinton Fisk on the day that the railroad bridge was completed. He received his bonus and headed back to Texas. The View from Canyon Diablo was a lot more pleasant to the eye on the way out, than it was on the way in for the Texas warrior.
The town quickly died and the original bridge was replaced in 1900. By 1903, the only thing remaining in the town was a Navajo trading post. What remains today at Canyon Diablo are a few building foundations, the grave marker of Colonel Shinbow Ashworth, the ruins of the trading post and a double track railroad bridge. An engraved sign made of stone is still located outside of town at a fork in the road, It prophetically reads, All trails lead to Hell Street.