‘The hardest place on the frontier’ was a hideout for Lone Star State fugitives and rustlers and site of one of the West’s bloodiest shootouts.
Tougher than Tombstone? Indisputably. Deadlier than Dodge? Unquestionably. The most amaz- ing thing about Tascosa is not that it made most other Western hell towns look like retirement communities—it’s the fact that few people have heard of it, and even those few have no idea just how bad a hell town it truly was. Damnable as Deadwood? Damn right. Badder than Bodie? You betcha.
This scrag-end adobe village, with never more than 300 permanent residents, sprang up from the Texas Panhandle prairie around 1875 and vanished within a half century. Billy the Kid courted infamy over in New Mexico Territory, but in 1878 he also sold stolen horses around Tascosa (see “The Kid in Tascosa” sidebar, P. 56). The Kid had plenty of company as a Panhandle rustler but was not tied to any of the early killings (see “Tascosa’s Grave Situation” sidebar, P. 57). G.W. “Cap” Arrington, a tough old Texas Ranger who had seen enough hard places to know what he was talking about, described Tascosa as “the hardest place on the frontier.” So, just what gave it such a tough, deadly and damnably bad reputation?
Begin with unchronicled killings during the town’s early days—fatal shootouts in “Hogtown” saloons, a collision between Chisum ranch cowboys and locals that got three men killed, the cold-blooded murder of a man who won too much in a card game and plenty more. Throw in the violent deaths of maybe 30 men in a six-year period, taking special note of a midnight gunfight that was among the bloodiest in the history of the American West. Factor in cattle rustling on a scale so big—perhaps a half million head —that no lawman who ever wore a badge was able to put a dent in it. Then add rivalries and hatreds that simmered on the edge of all-out range war for the better part of a quarter century. Fugitives, thieves, gamblers, con men, prostitutes and dance hall girls no longer tolerated by more settled locales farther east all came to Tascosa—and with good reason. For the first five years of its short and gaudy existence, Tascosa had no formal council, no government, no sheriff, not even a town marshal. The only law was gun law. Tascosa became the seat of newly organized Oldham County in 1880 but was hardly tame.
As isolated as an undiscovered island in an uncharted sea, Tascosa soon became “the cowboy capital of the Panhandle,” a town where you could drink, gamble or bed a whore—or all three— any time of the day or night. Or—if you made the wrong move or spoke the wrong word or ran into the wrong kind of man—you just might get killed.
And a lot of men did. Jim East, one of Tascosa’s early lawmen, reckoned that between 1880 and 1886, 26 men were killed in Tascosa, a mounting death toll that in March 1886 reached its homicidal apogee—four men killed, two others badly wounded —in a murderous gunfight that erupted in the wee hours of the morning after some cowboys had engaged in much Saturday night drinking.
Tascosa’s big gunfight had its origins in the way cattle ranching—and, by definition, cowboying—had changed since the 1870s. In the wake of “the beef bonanza” and the infusion into the cattle industry of millions of dollars of foreign capital, cowboys now worked for syndicates that not only insisted on industry-agreed pay scales and scheduled working hours but also made it a crime for a cowboy to slap his own brand on any maverick he ran across. The cowboys, needless to say, bitterly resented these strictures, and the more the syndicates—led by a hardheaded Easterner named William McDole “Alphabet” Lee—insisted on their observance, the greater grew the resistance. Finally, in the spring of 1883, the cowboys called a strike.
Lasting mere weeks, the strike was a lost cause. The syndicates simply sat tight, leaving the strikers to hang around Tascosa until what little money they had was gone. When the big ranches then blacklisted the strikers, they joined a wholesale rustling operation orchestrated by Jesse Jenkins, undisputed king of Tascosa’s down-and-very-dirty “addition” —once known as East Tascosa or Lower Town but more appropriately referred to as Hogtown. Every maverick earned the man who put the operation’s brand on it $5. The stolen stock was kept on a ranch just over the New Mexico Territory line, beyond the reach of Texas law. The outfit called itself the “Get Even Cattle Co.”
In the spring of 1884, Lee and the other big cattlemen upped the ante. They offered Pat Garrett—the lawman who three years earlier had killed Billy the Kid over in New Mexico Territory—$5,000 a year to lead a unit dubbed the Home Rangers, tasked with stamping out rustling. (Small ranch owners derided Garrett’s men as the “LS Rangers” for their ties with the sprawling LS Ranch.) After about nine months, Garrett himself—realizing his employers expected him to push out the “little men” by means fair or foul—turned in his badge, and the unit disbanded. In the year that followed, the former rangers came to be reviled as “barroom gladiators.” One in particular, Ed King, earned a reputation as a notably quarrelsome drunk.
On the uptown side of Tascosa, awaiting their moment, were Jesse Jenkins’ hard men, including Len Woodruff, a bartender at the Dunn & Jenkins saloon; Louis “the Animal” Bousman; “Squirrel-Eye” Charlie Emory; and John Gough, aka “the Catfish Kid.” Tensions flared on Friday, March 19, 1886, when King and two of his LS buddies taunted Woodruff, calling him “Pretty Len” and even slapping his face. The following evening, March 20, King and three other LS men—Frank Valley, Fred Chilton and John Lang—rode in for Hogtown’s weekly all-night baile. Around 2 a.m. on Sunday the 21st they left the dance and rode uptown to the Equity Bar.
In Bousman’s version of what happened next, Woodruff had just closed up the Dunn & Jenkins, and he, Woodruff, Squirrel-Eye Emory and the Catfish Kid “were standing out by the hitching rack in front of the saloon…[when] King and his men, four of them in all, came from over toward Jim East’s saloon on the north side of the street, and King walked up to us and said, ‘Well, I see you sons of bitches are still in town,’ and the shooting started.”
In another account, as the LS riders passed the Exchange Hotel, King’s girlfriend, Sally Emory, called out to him. He dismounted, handed his reins to Lang and set off on foot with Sally toward her place. As the couple approached Dunn & Jenkins, on the southeast corner of the plaza, someone called King’s name, a shot rang out and King fell, blood gushing from his mouth. As Sally ran for safety, Woodruff came out of the saloon, jammed the barrel of a Winchester against King’s neck and pulled the trigger before retreating inside.
Lang, who had witnessed the shooting, ran into the Equity to get Chilton and Valley, yelling, “Boys, they’ve killed Ed! Come on!” The trio dashed across to the cramped yard behind Dunn & Jenkins. Woodruff, Squirrel-Eye Emory, the Catfish Kid and the Animal (Bousman) were holed up inside. In a back room of the adjacent North Star restaurant, owner Jesse Sheets had just settled in for the night to keep an eye on an employee he thought was robbing him.
Valley charged into Dunn & Jenkins, guns blazing. Woodruff took two bullets, one through his belly, the other in the groin, and Emory went down with a chunk shot out of his leg. Woodruff staggered to the rear of the saloon and half fell inside, closing the door. Valley fired several shots through the door, then pushed it open. A rifle blazed, and Valley fell dead on the doorstep, shot through the left eye. At almost the same moment, drawn by the gunfire, Sheets peered out the back door of the North Star, and either Chilton or Lang shot him. A second later, rifle fire from the woodpile at the rear of the building cut Chilton down.
Lang, the lone survivor of the LS men, scuttled away under a hail of lead just as Sheriff Jim East and his deputy, Charlie Pierce, came running. As the lawmen passed Lang, a man darted out from behind the woodpile. Pierce ordered the man to stop, but he kept running, so the deputy loosed off a shot, and the man went down; it was the Catfish Kid. Figuring he was dying, Pierce left him where he lay. In fact, the Kid was playing possum and hadn’t received a scratch.
But four men were dead, among them Jesse Sheets, the proverbial innocent bystander in the affair. Townspeople buried the men later that day. Appalled at the idea her husband might be interred alongside his killers, Sarah Sheets insisted his grave be dug in another section of Boot Hill, which had been named after the cemetery in Dodge City, Kan. Perhaps because Sheriff East had taken the sage precaution of closing all the saloons, the funeral ceremonies went off without incident.
The next day, more than 50 LS cowboys told manager Jordan McAllister to say the word and the boys would ride into town, hang every member of the opposition and burn every house to the ground. McAllister hastily conferred with his boss, Alphabet Lee, who chose to let the courts handle it.
The few surviving records show that an Oldham County grand jury indicted Len Woodruff to appear at the spring term of court in May 1886, but he remained too ill to be moved (in fact, he was confidently expected to die), so the court postponed his case. Bousman was arraigned on May 10, Emory and the Catfish Kid the next day. All pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers argued successfully for a change of venue, and their trials were set for Monday, July 5, 1886, in Clarendon, Donley County. But later that year, the accused were granted another change of venue, this time to Mobeetie, Wheeler County, for January 1887 trials.
Oral tradition suggests the court ultimately acquitted the defendants, reputedly by a hung jury; unfortunately, Wheeler County court records of that period didn’t survive, so we will probably never know what evidence—or lack thereof—influenced the jury’s decision. Sheriff Jim East made his best guess: “Sentiment in the Panhandle was strong against sending a man to the penitentiary who had killed another man in combat. Murder was a different thing. But it was hard to convict for manslaughter, as they would generally plead self-defense.”
The great Tascosa gunfight cements the analogy of the town as an island in an uncharted sea, for although mundane happenings regularly made headlines across the Southwest, this dramatic shootout failed to make the newspapers even in neighboring frontier towns. As a result, some historians have dismissed it as little more than a drunken brawl, when in fact it was simultaneously the high point and low point of the undeclared war between the big cattle syndicates and Jesse Jenkins’ cohorts, a war that would rage another decade or more.
Tascosa would have quite a few more men for breakfast before the end of its life, but hard on the heels of the big fight came two events that would irrevocably change the town’s future: First was the decision of the Fort Worth & Denver City Railroad to bypass Tascosa. Second was the “Big Die-up”— the cattle-killing blizzards of 1886–87, which bankrupted many of the cattle syndicates. A few more fatal shootouts (including Jim East killing one-legged gambler Tom Clark in an Equity Bar shootout in May 1890) and a lot more dirty tricks would follow, but with its body fenced in and heart torn out, Tascosa slowly returned to dust. Today, little remains of it, aside from the old stone courthouse. On Boot Hill, however, the graves of men who died, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “some moment when the moon was blood” remain as a monument to one of the West’s bloodiest 19thcentury gunfights.
Englishman Frederick Nolan is author of The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History and The West of Billy the Kid. His book Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times (2007) is recommended.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.