Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Cornering Big Harpe

The posse spotted smoke coming from a rocky cavern and guessed that the Harpes were inside a cave. Creeping up on the outlaws, the posse surprised them as they were resting. (The Gleaner article indicates that they were separated and Wiley had blown a whistle to signal to Big Harpe to help him kill a wayfarer. He saw the posse and left, while Big Harpe was caught without a way to run.) Whichever tale is correct, a gun battle ensued and Micajah was wounded. He managed to get to a horse, leaving the women behind in the cave. Although Big Harpe usually had the superior horse, this time he grabbed Wiley's horse (The Gleaner indicates that it was William Love's stolen mount), taking off in a direction opposite that of Wiley. Rothert's account has it that the wives pointed the way, and when the posse caught up with Big Harpe, Leiper shot him in the leg and back. He supposedly used the gun filled with gunpowder that Harpe himself had given to the rifle's owner (although that part of the tale may be poetic license for ironic effect).

Because the posses contained too few men to separate to pursue both fugitives, several went after Big Harpe while the others guarded the Harpe women. They tied them to trees and left them, going in pursuit of the outlaws.

Big Harpe lashed his horse into a full-speed gallop, but Leiper had a better mount. They raced for some eight miles through the rugged wilderness, into and out of ravines, over hills, and through brush and trees. Finally, Micajah's horse began to tire and lose its pace. Since Leiper had pulled ahead of the others, he was alone and quite apprehensive about what a man of Harpe's size and degree of desperation might do, so he closed in with supreme caution. He lifted his gun, ready for anything, and when he realized that Harpe was not firing on him (because Harpe's ammunition was depleted or his gun was broken), he rushed in and fired. His bullet struck true, going through Harpe's arm and breaking it, as well as wounding him in the side (by Breazeale's account).

Harpe fell from his weary horse and crawled over to a log to set himself against something stable to prepare for his demise. He'd dropped his gun, and so had little defense except his legendary strength and his fearsome reputation. He also had a knife (or tomahawk or both) but not much strength to wield it. Leiper did not approach him at once to seize him, but rather reloaded his own gun and moved slowly forward.

"If you move even a finger," he warned, "I'll give you everything I've got in this rifle."

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