Bullets in the Buckhorn

In December of 1970, I suddenly found myself without a place to live. The three other guys I was sharing a house with had all decided to go their separate ways and I only had a few days to figure out a new landing place. Several people recommended I try at one of the old second-floor rooming houses downtown near the railroad tracks.

Laramie, Wyoming got its start as a “Hell on Wheels” tent town during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868. Most of these temporary towns – created to separate the railroad workers from their pay – picked up and moved  West as the rail head moved. A few, including Laramie, hung on. As the Turn of the Century approached, foundations were laid and the town of Laramie grew up around the Railroad tracks. General stores, saloons, hotels, livery stables, and more saloons went up. On many of these a second floor was added that contained a warren of smallish rooms. Railroad workers – Brakemen, Conductors, Engineers, Switchmen, and the like – would need a sleeping room for a day or two until the next shift.

By the early part of the Twentieth Century these rooms had added plumbing. There was a small sink in the corner of each room, a bathroom down the hall, and a common kitchen. But by mid-century, the diesel engine was replacing steam on the railroads. The trains needed less labor to run and were faster, so there were fewer layover points and the railroads rented entire hotels for that purpose. So the little one-flight-up rooms by the tracks in most places went away. But in Laramie, a university town, poor  students  kept them fairly-well rented.

On Ivinson Avenue, half a block from the tracks, I found a door lettered “Slyko Rooms.” I went up the long flight of stairs, knocked on the Manager’s door, and for $35 a month, found a room with a lovely view of the garbage cans down in the alley. After two years of getting high on nearly every recreational chemical in the book, I had resolved to completely quit all that and, instead, to practice Transcendental Meditation twice a day. I had already faced the fact that doing this on my own would be a tall order when I realized that 6 or 7 people I knew who had also started TM were living in rooms just down the hall. We became fast friends, fellow meditators,  and comrades in crazy.

The Slyko Rooms were located just across the street from the Buckhorn Bar. The Buckhorn is one of the oldest continuously operating dive bar saloons in the state of Wyoming. Nearly every other bar you can name has only a door facing the street. If the building had windows they would  have been painted over, perhaps to keep angry housewives from driving by and seeing their husbands inside drinking away the money for the gas bill. But for the Buckhorn it is not so. The length of the street frontage is covered by large, clear glass windows. This was great for us because one of our rooms was in the front of the building with large double-hung windows looking out on the street. On any given night, you could open our windows and spend time just watching what was going on in the Buckhorn.

In fact, one night we got so carried away with the spectacle of it that the guys carried furniture down that long flight of steps and set it up on the sidewalk while the girls made popcorn. We had a couch and several overstuffed chairs all lined up on the sidewalk where we sat, laughed, ate popcorn, and enjoyed the show across the street.

Rod, one of the Slyko crew, was stopped one afternoon as he walked down the alley behind the Buckhorn by one of the shabby, local homeless guys. With his long, uncombed hair and ragged tie-dyed bell bottoms, Rod must have made the old guy feel sorry for him because the fellow gave Rod a paper sack that contained two pickle and mayo sandwiches on Wonder Bread.

One Friday Night in May of 1971, I happened to be upstairs in the front room by myself. The windows were open and the Buckhorn was in full swing. Then I heard a “bang” out in the street that sounded like some yayhoo had set off a cherry bomb out there.

“”it’s pretty early for fireworks,” I said to nobody in particular as I got up and stuck my head out the window to investigate. I didn’t see anybody up to no good around the Buck. In fact, I didn’t see anybody at all inside the place. Drinks were on the tables and the bar, chairs were knocked over, but I couldn’t see a soul in there. I decided  I might get a better look at what was going on from street level. I ran down the stairs, opened the door, and peered out. About twenty yards to my right, by the light of a streetlamp, I could see a man behind the front fender of a parked car holding a hunting rifle.

I then decided that this might not be a safe place from which to watch,  so I jumped back inside and raced up the stairs to the front room. As I ran I heard what sounded like two or three more of those loud “pops.” I cautiously poked my head out the window far enough to see. The shooter was hunkered down behind the car, his left hand resting on the hood and cradling the forestock of the rifle while he looked through the scope into the bar.

Suddenly a Sheriff’s car, lights ablaze, blew out of the mouth of the alley. The driver slammed on the brakes and with tires smoking, the car slewed a quarter turn to the left as it skidded to a stop. Before it had stopped rocking the Deputy inside was opening the door to step out.

At that moment a man’s head poked out around the bottom corner of the front door of the bar. “Across the street! Behind a car!” the man shouted, then pulled his head back out of sight.

Then the Deputy did what was probably the bravest and the stupidest thing I have ever seen a man do. He stepped out of the squad car and faced the shooter full on. He held a shotgun in his right hand – no vest, no protection from the .30-06 bullet that was surely going to hit him square in the sternum – and yelled, “Put your weapon down and raise your hands over your head!”

Whether it was the sudden weight of Authority, the adrenaline that was practically squirting out of the Deputy’s ears, or the display of cowboy bravado, whatever it was – it worked. The shooter laid the rifle on the hood of the car and put his hands up.

The next day it came out that the shooter – a construction worker on a new campus building – had got himself a snootfull and decided that the female bartender was the love of his life.  Both she and her boyfriend, who was sitting at the bar, vehemently disagreed. The construction worker went home and came back with his hunting rifle.

The man’s first shot went through a window and into the ceiling, another slammed through the back mirror. They had the window replaced, but left the mirror with the bullet hole in it as part of the ambiance. Nearly fifty years later, it is still there.

16 Replies to “Bullets in the Buckhorn”

  1. Good recollection, Tim. Vivid imagery. I’m very familiar with the Bullet Hole but this is the first I knew of you being a witness to it. Thanks for sharing. By the way is, I. Gerken, Ian?

  2. Back in the day, I think that a lot of those second-story rooming houses above the downtown bars had a different purpose for those many small bedrooms.

    1. I was in one of them on First Street once. It had several little bolt-holes with lock bolts that operated from the inside.

  3. I played drums above the jukebox in the upstairs bar in the early 70’s, can’t remember which year, but do remember hearing the story from Mike Hopkins. However, I preferred to keep imagining that bullet hole coming from some wild west shootout in the earlier raucous days of the untamed west. It makes for a better drinking ambiance.

    1. Absolutely. It fits right in with the two-headed calf and that huge stuffed eagle over the bar.

  4. Slyko rooms, fond memories. Of course I was off to college and had to just visit from time to time, but then that was when the family lived right on the railroad tracks with all the fossils in the ground next door. I always slept in the entry in a roll away bed. And Zero got lost on campus…love you. Deb

    1. One of my favorite parts of writing these stories is when they tickle some personal memory in the mind of the person who’s reading it. Thanks, Deb. And I love you too.

  5. Wow I was working at Dunn’s coffee shop that night, one of the construction workers that always came in, walked to the back counter, I poured him a cup of coffee, he was shaking so bad he spilled most of it. Then he told me he almost got shot. He had a burn above his ear to prove it. I don’t think I ever seen anyone so scared. I think that bartender had dated that guy for a while and then she found a new boyfriend. Any way I alway remember his name, because it was John Phillips, the same name as my brother’s. The last I heard of him he was still in Evenston. He may be dead by now. And if you stayed above the bar across the street, Virgil Clymer was tending bar one Jubilee and some easterner came in with a loaded gun on his hip and started shooting through the celling and the bullet went upstairs and right by someone’s bed. I think it was a railroader. Barely missed him.

    1. Wow! Thanks, Faith. I’ve heard some talk of someone writing a book centered around all these events. A Rashomon-like piece with different points of view of all the characters involved. It could be fascinating, don’t you think?

      1. That would be a very interesting book to read. Laramie being a small town has a lot of interesting stories that have happened here. Good and bad, but all interesting.

    1. Thanks, Jo Ann. I’ve reserved most of the Slyko stories for a possible second novel. The novel I’ve completed the first draft of, Headfirst, is made up of the Hippie Days stories before I moved into Slyko. I’m hoping to put it out there in the next few months. Wish me luck!

  6. The fair damsel was a friend of my mine. I lived at 119 1/2 Ivinson at the time but was not around for the excitement. I did have a beer bottle crash through my skylight one night.

    1. I was in one of the places one flight up on 1st street and there was a WC halfway down the hall. There was a little ceiling in it with a slidebolt lock on the above side and a removable panel in the skylight. Clearly an escape route for the hookers in case of a raid.

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