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The Assault That Sparked Legendary Shootout

A look back at what triggered the infamous Tomato Springs gun battle 100 years ago. Part 2 in a series.

The Assault That Sparked Legendary Shootout

Except for light coming from the windowed parlor/dining area of Irvine tenant William Cook and his wife, all is pitch-black darkness this early Sunday evening of Dec. 15, 1912.  Within the home, the dishes have been cleared, and the Cooks and their two nieces—Myrtle Huff, 17, and her younger sister Jessie, 13—are happily chatting as they address Christmas cards.

But the girls’ dog is barking and, fearful that he might break away and follow the distant sounds of yelping coyotes, Myrtle and Jessie decide to check on him. Taking a lantern, they walk out to the barn, about 50 yards from the home, where they make sure their pet is secure. Then they re-latch the door and head back to the house.

Suddenly a man steps in front of them.

"Don’t either of you scream," he snarls, "or I’ll kill you both."

Then he fires a bullet into the ground in front of them and adds, "You see I mean business. Which one of you is the older?"

Myrtle replies that she is. Then she raises the lantern.

"Put it out!" she is commanded.

She does so, but not before catching a brief glance of the man’s face. It’s the stranger who came by earlier that afternoon, asking for work, and—after being told there was none—cast a sullen look back in her direction as he walked away.  

Now the stranger takes quick advantage of the girls' fear and confusion. First he produces a length of cord and ties Jessie to a fence post. Then he grabs Myrtle, dragging her away to a haystack behind the barn.

Meanwhile, Jessie begins working herself free.

A DESPERADO’S DEATH MARCH A dark night on an isolated ranch, a malicious-looking stranger, and two girls in jeopardy: These elements would ignite what would become known as "the bloodiest battle in Orange County history."

One hundred years later, other crimes have surpassed what began the night of Sunday, Dec. 15, 1912, and the following day and resulted in a six-hour shootout. But at a time when the still-fledgling Orange County was being promoted as a serene farming and citrus-growing community, and not at all reflective of the Wild West portrayed in the era's lurid dime novels, news of imperiled girls and the resulting gun battle at a place called Tomato Springs made headlines across the nation.

Some six decades later, writer and educator James Sleeper—at the time employed as the Irvine Co.’s historian—would research the story in depth and interview a number of men who'd been present at the shootout. Eventually Sleeper would devote an entire issue of the company-produced Rancho San Joaquin Gazette to the notorious incident.

And to illustrate the story? In addition to several company-provided photographs, Sleeper asked artist Alberto Rampone to create a diagram. This diagram would depict the steps leading to the death of the man dubbed both a "desperado" and "bandit" by The Los Angeles Times and other sensationaist newspapers of that period. 

In reconstructing the actions of the so-called Tomato Springs bandit, Rampone’s lettering system depicts the following: A, the William Cook ranch; B, the "fugitive's route to the hills"—made easy to track by his hob-nailed boots—and C, the site of the Chambers’ ranch, where the stranger demanded breakfast the next morning. D shows "his position in canyon after breakfast, where he was finally killed," E, the location of the over 200 man posse, and F the position of a militia of 20 men, "about 200 feet from fugitive when he was killed."

Now that you have the basic outline, return with us next week for the continuation of the infamous shootout at Tomato Springs.  

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