The charmed life of a frontier lawman
A Texan for three years and a Ranger for less than one, Jeff Milton survived his baptism of gunfire on Apr. 25, 1881 just as he would many other brushes with death in the years to come.
When the wife of Florida governor John Milton gave birth soon after secession, the pleased papa named the baby Jeff Davis in honor of the Confederate president. The elder Milton died in the closing days of the war, proud of the fact that his beloved Tallahassee along with Austin, Texas were the only southern capitals not to fall to the Yankees.
Young Jeff hung around the ruins of the family plantation until 1877, when he moved to Texas to live with a married sister. The teenager worked for his brother-in-law in a general store at Navasota before deciding relatives do not make the best bosses.
Bidding his kin farewell, Jeff took a job as an armed overseer on a prison farm near Huntsville. His maturity, self-discipline and courage caught the eye of a Texas Ranger looking for fresh recruits.
Any red-blooded American male in the 1870’s would have given his right arm to join the ranks of the famous frontier fighters, and Jeff Milton was no exception. The 19 year old accepted the invitation on the spot.
But months of mundane duty convinced Milton that the life of a Texas Ranger was not all it was cracked up to be. Bored and saddle-sore, he yearned for a little excitement to break the monotony.
Milton got his wish one spring afternoon in Colorado City. The three-man patrol had no sooner arrived in the West Texas town than the tell-tale sound of six-shooters attracted the trio to a local saloon.
Milton stood back as his more experienced comrades attempted to disarm a couple of feuding ranchers. Instead of surrendering his weapon, one of the combatants suddenly fired on the lawmen. His hand moving faster than his mind, the rookie Ranger drew his .45 and killed the crazed cattleman.
Completing his three-year enlistment, Milton served as a deputy sheriff in Murphyville, today called Alpine, before wandering farther west. In 1884 in Socorro County, New Mexico, his law enforcement career as well as his life nearly came to a sudden and bloody end.
Milton and a cowboy companion were ambushed by three Mexican bandits, who made the fatal mistake of missing the mark with their opening volley. Only after the bushwhackers lay dead in the desert did Milton notice the bullet hole in his leg. He casually disinfected the wound with turpentine and continued his journey.
Milton finished the dangerous decade by chasing Apaches for outnumbered pioneers in Arizona and illegal aliens from Mexico for the U.S. government. By 1890 he seemed to be settling down as a foreman on a horse ranch outside Tucson.
But he again pulled up his shallow roots and spent the next four years as a hired gun with the South Pacific railroad. Since El Paso was a regular stop, he got on good enough terms with the mayor to finagle an appointment as chief of police in 1894.
On a June night in 1895, Milton and a Texas Ranger waited in the darkness for George Scarborough to lure a wanted man back across the border from his Mexican hideout. At the last second, the fugitive sensed the set-up and shot wildly at his false friend.
Milton put a slug in the center of the outlaw’s chest but that only made him mad. Scarborough duplicated the feat at point-blank range, and this time the bad man stayed down.
Leaving El Paso, Milton and Scarborough went into business for themselves as small-time bounty hunters. But a big-time battle with a gang of rustlers in 1898 persuaded the pair to dissolve their partnership.
The centennial year found Milton earning a living as a railway guard for Wells Fargo. As the train pulled into an isolated station, he opened the door of the express car for a breath of fresh air and caught a bullet in his left arm.
Though seriously wounded, he returned fire with a shotgun, closed the door and hid the keys to the strongbox before losing consciousness. The frustrated train robbers rode away with nothing to show for their trouble, and Milton was hospitalized for several months as doctors struggled to save the maimed limb.
Since a middle-aged gunfighter with a crippled arm had an alarmingly short life expectancy, Milton tried his good hand at prospecting for gold and later for oil. Finding neither, he went to work in 1904 for the Immigration Service plugging the international dike with Mexico.
In his last known gunfight, Jeff Milton ran down a bank robber in Tombstone, Arizona in 1917. Having changed with the times, his means of transportation had four wheels instead of four legs, but it still took a six-gun to get the job done.
Bartee’s three books and ten “Best of This Week in Texas History” column collections are available for purchase at barteehaile.com.