The legendary lawman and gambler kept moving to answer the call, whether it came from the scales of frontier justice or the mouths of friends and relatives in need.
Alternately fidgeting in his leather-backed bench seat and pacing the Southern Pacific railcar as it sped across the spectral Arizona landscape into New Mexico, Bat Masterson turned over the words in his mind and the crumpled telegram in his hands. It was April 1881, and he was retracing his steps with dizzying haste, back through the towering Raton Pass to Colorado, back to the Kansas flatlands, shedding his new life in Tombstone to aid his younger brother. Lured by the prospect of making a quick buck in the coming cattle season, Jim Masterson had partnered in a Dodge City dance hall and saloon with Al Updegraff and A.J. Peacock, a pair of known troublemakers. Now the violent falling-out any schoolchild might have predicted had come about.
Hurrying to the aid of friends and family was nothing new for Masterson. Fast becoming a Western legend, largely because of lies and half-truths printed in newspapers and spread by word of mouth, Bat was hardly the promiscuous gunslinger legend pegs him to be, accounting for perhaps two victims in stand-up shootouts. But neither should one dismiss him as an insignificant frontier figure. Bat experienced many colorful adventures on the Plains and had much more going for him than a catchy name. As his biographer Robert K. DeArment writes, “The story of Bat Masterson requires no sensational embellishments.”
Masterson lived in violent times and witnessed death as a buffalo hunter, Army scout, dutiful lawman and professional gambler. More than a few times he confronted gunmen, and his reputation stood him in good stead. As a frontiersman both comfortable and confident handling guns, Masterson was someone friends such as Wyatt Earp could count on and foes preferred to avoid. Updegraff and Peacock may have been emboldened to go gunning for Jim Masterson, but they might have second thoughts were Bat thrown into the mix. Masterson wasn’t the kind of man to back down, especially not with a brother’s welfare at stake. Just three years earlier in Dodge City, he had rushed to help his beloved older brother, Ed, but had arrived too late to save his life.
Now, as the Santa Fe rolled toward his old stomping grounds, Bat was certainly worried, but not at the prospect of again stepping into harm’s way. Going the extra mile to seek justice and redemption was old hat to Masterson, who stands out as a knight-errant of his era, a paladin of the Plains. What worried him was the prospect that Jim was already dead. For unlike the mythical heroes of countless Westerns, real men who sought to be saviors sometimes failed.
Bat Masterson started life as a Canadian boy named Bartholomew. Born in Quebec on November 26, 1853, he was the second son of Thomas Masterson and Catherine McGurk. Popular legend suggests he acquired the nickname “Bat” from his habit of using an ornate cane to belabor rowdy cowboys during his stint as a Dodge City lawman. Early in 1876, he was wounded in a gunfight and reportedly left with a slight limp. As the story goes, thereafter he walked with the aid of a cane that came in handy when trouble arose. But while that explanation fits the image of frontier justice, it is belied by the fact that buffalo-hunting pard Henry Raymond was calling him “Bat” as early as November 1872, years prior to the crippling gunfight. In fact, family lore says the French-Canadian Bertholomiew on his baptismal certificate was Anglicized and shortened to Bart and then Bat as the Masterson clan migrated to the States in the 1860s, farming in New York and Illinois before settling outside Wichita, Kan., in 1871. Bat also used the adopted name W.B. (William Barclay) Masterson.
But young Bat retained a thirst for travel and adventure. At 17, he took to the southern Plains with a 16-pound, .50-caliber Sharps rifle and made his living hunting buffalo. It was then he honed his shooting skills. And in his downtime at various camps, Fort Dodge and its adjacent town, he took to gambling, which later became his livelihood—not to mention another good reason to keep moving. In June 1874, trapped inside a Texas Panhandle trading post called Adobe Walls, Masterson and more than two dozen other hunters fought off hundreds of Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa braves. The Indians persisted for three days, but the beleaguered band of hunters emerged victorious, their sharpshooting prowess leaving scores of enemy dead on the field. Bat’s reputation as a feared gunman began to take shape.
That reputation grew in early 1876 after a deadly affair at the settlement that had sprung up around the U.S. Army’s cantonment on Sweetwater Creek, near Adobe Walls. Masterson was working as a teamster at the camp. There on the night of January 24, Bat and Corporal Melvin King of the 4th U.S. Cavalry quarreled over—so the romantic version goes—a prostitute named Molly Brennan. When King tried to plug his rival, Brennan supposedly got in the way. The bullet ripped through her stomach and struck Masterson in the pelvis, knocking him to the floor. As Molly expired next to him, Bat wrenched his pistol from his belt and blew the life out of King. In another version, told by Sweetwater resident George Curry, “King and one of the dance hall girls had been killed and two soldiers wounded in a gunfight between Bat Masterson and several buffalo hunters on one side and the soldier, King, and several of his buddies on the other.” Thus, Brennan may have been just a luckless bystander in the line of fire. Whatever the truth, Masterson gained a solid reputation as a nervy cuss with a gun.
The gunshot wound must not have been disabling, as within three months Masterson was well enough to hire on in Dodge City as deputy to Ford County Sheriff Charlie Bassett. The record of Bat’s service first surfaces in a May 15, 1876, district court filing, on which he is named an arresting officer in a criminal trespass charge brought against Captain Emil Adam. The incident predates Wyatt Earp’s appointment as Dodge deputy marshal, refuting the claim it was Wyatt who made Bat a lawman. Other documents witness Masterson serving subpoenas in early summer 1876. By July he had left town, on the heels of an incident that put his honor, and that of his fellow officers, in question.
On June 13, the sheriff of Russell County, Kan., finally caught up to a dashing desperado named Dutch Henry Born, whose gang had already stolen some 50 horses that year. Eight days later, Born was transferred to Ford County to face an outstanding arrest warrant. But on June 28, the Topeka Commonwealth reported Dutch Henry’s escape, adding: “There were four keys to the lock. Strong suspicions are entertained that some one of the officers connived at his escape and for a valuable consideration let the notorious horse thief slide.” Whether Bassett or his men were involved is uncertain, but Masterson soon resigned as deputy sheriff and went on an extensive gambling tour, with stops at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, and Sidney, Neb. He retained a keen interest in the apprehension of Dutch Henry.
By the spring of 1877, Masterson had landed back in Dodge and become an undersheriff, Bassett’s second-in-command. In November, Bat campaigned to succeed Bassett and won election by a three-vote margin. He was sworn in as Ford County sheriff on January 14, 1878, and his first genuine “‘have gun, will travel” enterprise followed almost before he could pin on his silver star.
In the predawn hours of January 27, 1878, the crew of a Santa Fe local at the Kinsley depot, 35 miles northeast of Dodge in Edwards County, forced five would-be train robbers to flee empty-handed. Masterson wanted to pursue the outlaws, but the county was outside his jurisdiction, and, as one newspaper explained, “Our sheriff is not in circumstances that will warrant him incurring the expenses necessary to hire horses, employ a posse of men and pay their expenses… unless those expenses are guaranteed by somebody.” But then the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway posted a $100 reward for apprehension of the gang, “dead or alive,” and the Adams Express Company, whose strongbox was aboard the train, assured Bat it would finance the manhunt.
Two days after the aborted robbery, Masterson and posse members J.J. Webb, Kinch Riley and Prairie Dog Dave Morrow galloped south, believing at least some of the bandits would make for Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). While camped 55 miles south of Dodge during a snowstorm, the posse watched two strangers approach. Masterson instructed Webb to pose as a cattleman and invite the pair to the dugout, where the rest of the posse lay in wait. The plan worked, and Bat soon had a brace of pistols pointed at 26-year-old Ed West, a notorious thief, and Dave Rudabaugh, who at just 23 had already led a wild life of crime. The badmen had eluded several posses from Edwards County and a detachment of cavalry from Fort Dodge and would surely have escaped had not Masterson worked out their likely route and concocted a ruse to entrap them.
Masterson didn’t have time to be that clever, or lucky, on the night of April 9, 1878, when a fellow lawman, his own brother no less, got into serious trouble in Dodge. Ed Masterson had been appointed city marshal the prior December. Bat’s older brother was as courageous and skilled with a gun, but reportedly too congenial and trusting for his own good. Outside the Lady Gay Saloon that spring night, a drunken, armed and quite dangerous herdsman (Ed had earlier taken the man’s pistol from him but unwisely handed it over to his trail boss) approached the marshal and shot him at point-blank range. Told of his brother’s plight, Bat raced to the scene. He was too late to save Ed, but he may have been the one to finish off Ed’s killer in the ensuing exchange of gunfire.
Masterson made the sad trip to tell his parents of Ed’s death, but he was soon back on the job. In October 1878, Bat joined a posse comprised of Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, Bill Tilghman and William Duffey. The lawmen soon returned to Dodge with fugitive James Kenedy, who had killed popular variety actress Dora Hand.
In late December, Masterson got word his old nemesis Dutch Henry Born was hanging about Trinidad, Colo., waiting for better weather to begin his usual depredations against Kansan stock owners. Still smarting from the outlaw’s suspicious jailbreak more than two years earlier, Bat instructed authorities to hold Dutch Henry. But when the sheriff arrived in Trinidad to claim his prize, he faced an impediment. Masterson wired the county attorney back in Dodge: SHERIFF WONT [sic] DELIVER UP DUTCH HENRY UNLESS I PAY HIM $500. HE SAYS HE CAN GET THAT FOR HIM IN NEVADA. Undeterred, Bat demanded a hearing for Born and appeared as a witness. The surprising result was that the sheriff got his man, returning to Kansas with Dutch Henry. Reporting the outcome, the January 11, 1879, Dodge City Times marveled, “How Bat got possession of the prisoner without the payment of a reward and without a gubernatorial requisition will probably be explained in the pages of a yellow-backed storybook, which will detail the mysteries and crimes of the early settlement of this border.”
Despite Masterson’s impressive record, the reform element in Dodge did not support him, and Bat lost his reelection bid for Ford County sheriff in November 1879. He ventured to Colorado to gamble, but remained ever ready to answer the call of friends. In the summer of 1880, Masterson hurried to Ogallala, Neb., at the request of fellow gambler Ben Thompson, whose brother Bill had been wounded in a gunfight and was apparently in danger of being lynched. Bat had no particular use for Bill, but saved his hide anyway by sneaking him out of town.
Masterson returned to Dodge City, but things just weren’t the same. The powers that be still had no use for his services. When a plea from longtime friends and associates Wyatt Earp, Luke Short and Lew Rickabaugh reached him, Bat was more than ready to kick the Kansas dust from his boots. On February 8, 1881, he set out by train from Dodge to join the consortium running Tombstone’s Oriental Saloon, the finest gambling palace in all of Arizona Territory. But danger lurked behind the invitation: A rival gang of gamblers sought to muscle in on the bonanza at the Oriental, and Bat was needed as much for his reputation with a six-gun as for his dexterity with the faro box.
Shortly after taking his post, Bat wound up in the midst of the heated action. The Slopers, the West Coast outfit with designs on the Oriental, needed a strong-arm killer to run Earp and company out of the house, and veteran gambler and gun hand Charlie Storms had answered the call. As it happened, Bat was acquainted with Storms and thought favorably of him. On February 25, Charlie shoved a Colt under the nose of dealer Rickabaugh, vowing to send him to perdition if he dared turn another card. Short got involved, but Masterson thrust himself between the antagonists before hammers could be cocked. He then led Storms to the San José House to sleep off his mean streak. Back at the Oriental, Bat was explaining to his fellows that Storms was really a decent sort, when the Slopers’ hired gun reappeared, bent on deadly mischief. Storms spun Short around and went for his gun, but Short was faster, jamming the muzzle of his pistol against Storms’ heart and pulling the trigger. The gunman fell dead on the spot, abruptly ending the war for the Oriental.
Three weeks later, on the night of March 15, bandits waylaid the stage from Tombstone to Benson, killing the driver and a passenger in a wild shootout. Once again, Masterson’s reputation made him a welcome member of an elite posse, in company with Wyatt Earp, Wyatt’s brothers and Sheriff Bob Paul. For 10 days and nights they pursued four highwaymen the length and breadth of Arizona Territory. They captured one at a ranch, but the others led them on a merry chase, circling some 400 miles, securing fresh mounts at isolated desert camps and always staying one jump ahead. Hunger and thirst dogged the posse, putting its tenacity to the ultimate test. Only when Masterson’s horse dropped dead beneath him did he admit defeat. While the other lawmen straggled behind, he and Wyatt Earp, footsore and famished, trudged the final 18 miles to Tombstone, only to find that their lone prisoner, returned to town for safekeeping, had coolly strolled out of jail and vanished. While the mission had been a fiasco, it was such shared trials that cemented the lifelong bond between Bat and Wyatt.
Masterson had anticipated a leisurely stay in Tombstone with Earp and other friends, but the anonymous telegram from Dodge that April could not be ignored. Brother Jim was in serious trouble, and as usual, it was up to Bat to do something about it. Farms and homesteads flashed into view as the train reached the outskirts of Dodge on the 16th. Since leaving Tombstone, Bat had received no word as to Jim’s fate. If possible, he would act as an intermediary in his brother’s dispute with Updegraff and Peacock or conjure up some other plan to avoid violence. But his six-shooter was fully loaded. If need be, he would settle things the old-fashioned way.
The Santa Fe bisected town at a plot of bare ground called the Plaza. There, as the engine slowed down, Bat dropped from his coach to the familiar Kansas dust. Enemies were about, and prudence dictated he retain the element of surprise.
His caution proved well founded. As the train’s caboose clicked past, he caught sight of Al Updegraff and A.J. Peacock —the very pair the telegram had warned was after Jim’s hide —striding parallel to the depot south of the tracks, their eyes scanning the coach windows. Both were armed. Bat called out, “I want to talk to you!” Startled and reluctant to go toe-to-toe with the former sheriff, Updegraff and Peacock instead pulled their shooting irons and fired over their shoulders as they sprinted for the cover of the jailhouse just yards away.
Bat dove behind an embankment north of the tracks and unlimbered his own revolver, blasting away at the jail whenever his opponents popped out to fire a shot in his direction. One of their bullets smacked into the dirt before him, knocking a clod into his mouth. He spat it out and continued the fight.
Volleys zinged over Bat’s head into storefronts behind him, rattling patrons at the Long Branch Saloon and zipping through the door of Doc McCarty’s drugstore. Gunfire then erupted from several saloons, further pinning down Peacock and Updegraff. Bat’s friends had come to his aid. A moment later, Updegraff fell back with a low moan. A bullet— probably not Bat’s—had ripped through his body, puncturing a lung. Tense silence settled over the Plaza.
Mayor Ab Webster, shotgun in hand, edged from one of the nearby stores and warily approached Masterson. Bat, his six-gun empty and his adversaries disinclined to continue the fight, stood and greeted Webster with the question, “How is Jim?” Told his brother was alive and well, Masterson turned over his weapon to the mayor, his family obligation fulfilled.
The following day Bat paid an $8 fine. In lieu of further sentencing, he and gamblers Charles Ronan and Tom O’Brien, who had joined the battle in his defense, agreed to leave town. As the town fathers saw things, the fray, which could have claimed innocent citizens, had arisen out of nothing more than a dispute between dance hall proprietors. That Bat had seen fit to travel 1,000 miles to settle it with gunfire, even if brother Jim had been in danger, was an affront to a community eager to cast off its reputation as a playground for hellions. Bat, too, seemed chastened by the episode; it marked the last time he aimed his revolver with the intent of taking a human life.
Over the remaining four decades of his career, though rough patches popped up now and again, Bat Masterson was ever less inclined to ride off in search of adventure or to recklessly step in harm’s way. He preferred the role of respected and respectable citizen. Still, in 1882, as city marshal of Trinidad, he helped prevent the extradition of Wyatt Earp’s friend Doc Holliday from Colorado to Arizona Territory to stand trial for murder (see related story in the June 2009 Wild West). And the following year, Luke Short prevailed on Bat to help him regain a foothold in Dodge City after reform-minded rivals had run him out of town. Bat not only traveled to Dodge but also persuaded Wyatt Earp and other gunman pals to do the same. With a little help from Bat and company, Short was soon back in business, and the so-called Dodge City War ended without bloodshed. For the paladin of the Plains, old habits didn’t die easy.
Roger Jay of Baltimore has done much research and writing on Wyatt Earp and is a frequent contributor to Wild West. Suggested for further reading: Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, by Robert K. DeArment, and Why the West Was Wild, by Nyle H. Miller and Joseph W. Snell.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.