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Trigger-happy cowboys sought the good time

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Law on Monday, 22 August 2011

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This edited article about the Wild West originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1032 published on 19 December 1981.

cowboys playing Faro, picture, image, illustration

A game of Faro could be found in most saloons, and was one of many risky pleasures enjoyed by cowboys who had finally been paid for weeks out on the cattle ranges, by Harry Green

It was about 3 a.m. one hot July night in 1878 when two cowboys buckled on their six-shooters, mounted their horses and prepared to make a noisy farewell to the Kansas cowtown of Dodge City. They proceeded to “hurrah” the town by riding through the dark streets at full gallop, yelling and shooting indiscriminately.

Eddie Foy, a popular comedian of the time, was performing in Dodge that week and happened to be in the Lady Gay saloon at the time. He had also noticed two of Dodge City’s most famous residents, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday, at one of the gambling tables. Suddenly there was a fusillade of shots and bullets tore through the side of the building.

“Everybody dropped to the floor at once, according to custom,” wrote Foy later. “Bat Masterson was just in the act of dealing the cards to Doc Holliday, and I was impressed by the instantaneous manner in which they flattened out like pancakes on the floor. I had thought I was pretty agile myself, but those fellows had me beaten by seconds . . .”

Standing just outside the saloon, Assistant Marshal Wyatt Earp was on night duty watching the street and, at the same time, listening to the songs and jokes coming through the thin walls. The bullets from the cowboys’ guns just missed Earp as they tore through the plank walls behind him. Immediately, his gun roared after the retreating horsemen. Officer Jim Masterson ran to Earp’s side and joined in the gunplay.

As the cowboys clattered over a bridge leading out of town, one was winged and brought down. The cowboy later died, a tragic example of what could happen to anyone who indulged in dangerous horseplay in Dodge City.

In the 1870s the cowtowns of Kansas were among the most violent places in the West. Cowboys, after a long, arduous journey herding cattle up from Texas, would arrive at the end of the trail at a cowtown like Dodge City. Here the cattle would be sold and shipped by train to the East – and the cowboys could let off steam. They had money to spend and they intended to buy themselves a good time.

More often than not the cowboys were soon relieved of their money by the residents of the gambling halls and saloons. And the combination of guns and alcohol often caused tragedy.

A few months before the shooting of the “hurrahing” cowboy, the marshal of Dodge, Ed Masterson, had been shot dead attempting to arrest two drunken cowboys who were armed with six-guns. This contravened the city ordinance which forbade the carrying of lethal weapons within the city limits. As Marshal Masterson pulled his gun from its holster, the first cowboy shoved his pistol against the lawman’s right side and pulled the trigger.

Masterson staggered back, his clothes set alight by the proximity of the blast, but still he managed to shoot the cowboy. Then the second cowboy raised his pistol but Ed fired three times, hitting him in the chest and in the right arm.

The five shots that were fired came in such rapid succession that it was said that they sounded like a Gatling gun. Ed Masterson, with a huge hole through his body and his clothes still smouldering, walked 180 metres across the street before collapsing. He died some 30 minutes later without regaining consciousness. The two cowboys died soon after.

The name of Masterson is forever linked with that of Dodge City; Ed Masterson was perhaps its most respected marshal and his younger brother, James, was also a most courageous and well liked city law officer. But it was “Bat” Masterson who is undoubtedly the most famous of the brothers.

Until recently it was accepted that Bat’s real name was William Barclay Masterson and that the name “Bat” was a nickname probably given to him as a result of his habit of batting down badmen with a cane that he carried for some time (after having been shot in the leg in a gunfight). However, new research has revealed that his baptismal name was, in fact, Bartholomew and “Bat” was merely a shortened form of his Christian name.

When Bat Masterson first arrived in Dodge City in 1877 he was, at the age of 23, a tried and proven gunslinger, buffalo-hunter and Indian fighter. Almost immediately on entering the town he found himself in trouble with the law. The marshal at that time, Larry Deger, was escorting a diminutive prisoner to jail and kicking him in the rear to hurry him along. Bat saw red and grabbed the marshal around the neck, allowing the prisoner to escape.

Half a dozen bystanders rushed in to help Deger and disarm young Bat. The marshal hit Bat about the head with his pistol and then dragged him off to jail.

Shortly after this inauspicious welcome to Dodge City, Bat gained great popularity among the local citizenry, and in the autumn of 1877 he was elected sheriff of the county. Only a few weeks after his appointment, Bat proved himself by capturing a band of train robbers. He led a posse in a 200-kilometre pursuit in appalling weather conditions and captured the robbers without bloodshed.

After this successful beginning to his career as a lawman, Bat went on to become an outstanding sheriff of Ford County and Dodge City’s most famous citizen. To mark his new profession he adopted a tailor-made black suit and a curled-brim bowler hat. He made his rounds of the county in a buggy and team. The only items that remained the same were the two silver-mounted, ivory-handled pistols he wore.

In later life the Kansas lawman became a sports writer in New York but his gun-fighting past always stayed with him. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, one of Bat’s greatest admirers, offered him the appointment of US marshal for Oklahoma Territory. “I am not the man for the job,” Bat wrote to the President, “Oklahoma is still woolly, and . . . I would be a bait for grown-up kids who had fed on dime novels. I would have to kill or be killed. No sense to that. I have taken my guns off, and I don’t ever want to put them on again.”

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