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The Mastersons

Bat Masterson

Bat had a wide and well-earned reputation - one so overwhelming that lesser men usually gave way without forcing him to draw his guns. Bat was something of a prankster, who loved to be in trouble or on the edge of it. Bat Masterson belonged to a lawman clan, a trio of brothers who were as loyal to one another as the three musketeers and who, together, committed themselves wholeheartedly to taming one of the wildest of all cattle towns, Dodge City.

The Old West's supreme virtuoso of the six-gun on the law-and-order side was Bat Masterson, whose appearance matched his dazzling talents - a red silk neckerchief and matching sash, its fringed ends hanging to his knees; gold-mounted spurs; silverplated, ivory-handled revolvers; silver-studded belt and holster; and a gray sombrero banded by a rattlesnake skin with glass eyes. An easterner who had heard of Bat's contributions to Boot Hill and had pictured him as an unshaved ruffian stopped off at Dodge City once and asked where he could see the famous Bat. "When you meet the best-dressed and best-looking man in town," he was told, "that will be Bat."

There were five Masterson brothers in all, sons of a Kansas homesteader who settled on a prairie farm near Wichita in 1871. The youngest of the boys, George and Tom, would never have any particular claim to fame. But Ed, the eldest brother, eventually became the marshal of Dodge City; Bartholomew, the second-born, called "Bat" for short, served as the sheriff of Ford County, which had Dodge City as its county seat; and Jim, the third brother, followed Ed as Dodge's marshal. Of the three, Bat always figured as the leader, the maker of big plans.

In 1872, when he was 19, Bat talked Ed and Jim into leaving the boring life of the farm for a fling at buffalo hunting in the wilds of southwestern Kansas. Ed and Jim returned to the farm for a while, but except for a few brief visits Bat never did go back. He followed the great buffalo herds from Kansas down through the Indian Territory and into the Texas Panhandle, meeting adventures enough to satisfy the most foolhardy of farm boys. At a Panhandle town called Adobe Walls (if it could be called a town: it consisted of two stores, a blacksmith's shop and a saloon), he had his first taste of Indian-fighting. Actually it was considerably more than a taste. For five days, in a company of 35 hunters, Bat helped to hold off a determined attack by 500 Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne and Southern Apache warriors who were spreading havoc in the region. Later, he rode as a scout during a full-scale Army campaign in the Texas Panhandle against the same tribes. In 1876, in Sweetwater, Texas, he had his first real gunfight.

The details of that fight were never fully unraveled. What seems certain is that Bat took a Sweetwater girl named Molly Brennan from under the nose of her former lover, a U.S. Army sergeant named Melvin King, and when King found them together one night in a saloon, he opened fire on Bat. As the story goes, Molly threw herself in front of Bat to protect him; King's bullet passed through her body, killing her instantly, and lodged in Bat's pelvis. But as he fell, with the sergeant cocking his pistol for another shot, Bat fired back. King died at an Army camp the following day. As for Bat, he suffered a slight permanent limp from his wound, and took to carrying a cane - at first out of necessity, later for adornment alone.

Tested and proven as a buffalo hunter, scout and gunfighter, Bat Masterson arrived in Dodge City in the spring of 1877 to settle down - in his own way. He was 23, strikingly handsome with his mop of black hair, slate-blue eyes and compact body, and something of a dandy in the frontier fashion. When he first came to town, he sported a Southwestern sombrero with a rattlesnake-skin band, a scarlet silk neckerchief and Mexican sash, gleaming silver-plated six-shooters in silver-studded holsters and a pair of gold-mounted spurs; an observer on Front Street suggested that all this finery might give Bat an edge in a gunfight by blinding his opponent. But Bat had come to Dodge bent on business, not gunfighting.

His brothers Ed and Jim, who had preceded him to Dodge, were already well ensconced. Jim was the coowner of a combination saloon-dance hall that had been well reviewed by the Dodge City Times ("The graining of the bar is finely executed. Charley Lawson's orchestra are mounted on a platform tastefully ornamented with bunting"). Ed, the steadygoing elder brother, had just been appointed assistant marshal of Dodge.

Almost at once after Bat's arrival in town he ran afoul of the law. In a burst of good cheer, probably stimulated by bad whiskey, he got himself arrested. The trouble started when Marshal Larry Deger, a whale of a man at about 300 pounds, began to march a diminutive deadbeat named Bobby Gill off to jail for disturbing the peace. According to the Times, "Bobby walked very leisurely" - so much so that Larry felt it necessary to assist him along with a few kicks in the rear. This act was soon interrupted by Bat Masterson, who grabbed the marshal around the neck, giving the prisoner a chance to escape. Deger then grappled with Bat, at the same time calling upon bystanders to take Bat's gun. With the help of half a dozen men Bat was disarmed; then Deger pistol-whipped him about the head until the blood flowed, and dragged him to jail. "Every inch of the way was closely contested," said the Times in its account of the affair, "but the city dungeon was reached at last, and in he went. If he had got hold of his gun before going in, there would have been a general killing."

That afternoon Ed Masterson performed his first official act as assistant marshal: he arrested Bobby Gill without any special difficulty, and tossed him into the clink to join Bat. Next day Bat and Bobby stood up together in police court. Bobby Gill got off with a five dollar fine - and later received a free railroad ticket out of town, provided by the marshal. Bat, who had made the mistake of resisting arrest, and was the brother of a substantial citizen, was ordered to pay $25 plus costs. He left the courtroom with an understandable and abiding dislike for Larry Deger.

In this dislike he was joined by an unexpected ally - Dodge City Mayor James "Dog" Kelley (the nickname was not a personal slur; it arose from the fact that Kelley proudly kept a pack of greyhounds that once belonged to no less a hero than George Armstrong Custer). Kelley's quarrel with Deger was purely a business matter. Like many a cattle-town mayor, he was a saloonkeeper; he owned a modest but promising establishment on Front Street. Like many a marshal, Deger had business ambitions; during his term of office he bought into a rival Front Street saloon. In the summer of 1877, at the peak of the cowboy influx into Dodge - the most profitable time of year for saloons - the marshal attempted to use the powers of his office in a highhanded coup against the Mayor.

At 2 o'clock one morning Deger waddled into Kelley's saloon and arrested the Mayor's bartender on a minor, trumped-up charge. Dog Kelley soon came running to the jail and ordered his bartender released; when the marshal refused, the Mayor announced that he was suspended from office. Deger simply ignored him. Now Mayor Kelley ordered Assistant Marshal Ed Masterson and Policeman Joe Mason to arrest their boss. The marshal promptly drew his gun and warned the officers not to come near him, but after some palaver Ed talked Deger into letting himself be locked up for the moment. Ten minutes later, released without bail, Marshal Deger lodged a complaint against Kelley for interfering with a lawman in the discharge of his duty - and now the Mayor found himself arrested. Not until late afternoon did other officials manage to restore the status quo. The city council reinstated Deger as marshal; the police court dismissed the charge against the Mayor.

Clearly, Dog Kelley did not have enough backing in the city council to fire the marshal. But a group of ambitious young newcomers to Dodge, sympathetic to the Mayor, were at that moment planning a political takeover that would give Kelley and his supporters undisputed control of the city after the next election. The newcomers hung out at the office of the young county attorney, Mike Sutton, who had come to Kansas fresh from a Missouri law school with only a single shirt to his name. Sutton's office was furnished with chairs so fragile that they had to be held together with baling wire, and visitors prudently preferred to stand. Nevertheless, the atmosphere proved congenial. The budding politicos welcomed such recruits as Mayor Kelley, Lloyd Shinn, the 22-year-old editor of the influential Dodge City Times, and Bat Masterson, who had just been appointed undersheriff of Ford County. Opposition forces began to call the members of these assemblies "the Gang," and they promptly adopted the name for themselves.

In the fall of 1877, Larry Deger, the Gang's prime target, announced that he would run for county sheriff that year. Immediately, the Gang put Bat Masterson forward for the office. The Times gave him a wholehearted endorsement: " `Bat' is well known as a young man of nerve and coolness in cases of danger. He is qualified to fill the office and if elected will never shrink from danger." Soon afterward Bat won the endorsement of a "People's Mass Convention," which held its session at the Lady Gay saloon. In the election he beat Deger by three votes. The city council knew and respected a political landslide when they saw one. At Mayor Kelley's request, the council members finally fired Larry Deger as marshal of Dodge. In his place, after consulting the new movers and shakers of the town, they appointed Ed Masterson.

Less than six months earlier Ed and Bat Masterson had been inexperienced deputy lawmen. Now, by luck and skillful politicking, they were powerfully ensconced respectively as marshal of Dodge City and sheriff of Ford County. Ed was 25 years old, a year older than Bat. Though both had a lot to learn, only Ed really had the time to do so; a cattle town in winter was a quiet place, and Ed's services would not be much needed until the cowboys roared into town the following summer. But Bat's county-wide duties required that he be a quick learner - and he was. He started by changing his personal style to something more respectable. The sombrero and sash were abandoned; as he made his rounds of the county in a buggy and team, he wore a tailormade black suit and a smart bowler hat with a high curled brim. Eddie Foy, who met him during this period, described him as "a trim, good-looking young man with a pleasant face and carefully barbered mustache, well-tailored clothes, hat with a rakish tilt, and two big silver-mounted, ivory-handled pistols in a heavy belt."

Only two weeks after assuming office, Bat got the chance to launch his term in a blaze of glory. At Kinsley, about 35 miles from Dodge City in neighboring Edwards County, six bandits tried to rob a train, were foiled and fled into the countryside. The sheriff of Edwards County and a detachment of troops from Fort Dodge set off in separate pursuits. Bat ignored both operations. Anticipating the bandits' movements, he led a posse through a driving blizzard to Crooked Creek, 55 miles from Dodge, and hid his men in an abandoned drovers' camp. When two of the outlaws approached seeking shelter from the storm, Bat sent one man out as a decoy to lead them into the camp. Before they could brush the snow from their coats the sheriff sprang forward, his two six-shooters cocked, and ordered them to throw up their hands. One did; the other reached for his revolver. The hammer click of another gun behind him changed his mind, and he surrendered too.

After turning over his prisoners to Edwards County officials, Bat took up the pursuit of the other four bandits, leading his posse 80 miles south to the neck of the Indian Territory. This hunt failed, but a month later two of the fugitives turned up in Dodge, hoping to learn the whereabouts of the sheriff's posse. One was soon spotted at a dance hall. Before dawn, Bat summoned his brother Ed and another lawman and took the outlaws without a gunfight.

The fifth bandit eluded capture for half a year more, and the sixth man was never caught. But Bat's triumph was splendid enough. Three of the prisoners were convicted after a short trial when the fourth, a border ruffian named Dave Rudabaugh, testified against them. Turning state's evidence was rare in those times and among such men. The Kinsley Graphic reported, almost wonderingly: "Rudabaugh testified that he was promised entire immunity from punishment if he would `squeal,' therefore he squole. Some one has said there is a kind of honor among thieves. Rudabaugh don't think so."

For Bat Masterson, it was clear sailing from then on. The dapper young lawman became a familiar sight as he whipped his team and buggy around his bailiwick, an enormous area stretching 100 miles from east to west and 75 miles from north to south. Horse thieves and other outlaws wisely began to give this new hard-working sheriff a wide berth, and the plains of Ford County were at relative peace. But in Dodge City, as the spring of 1878 drew on, Ed Masterson's work load as the city marshal grew heavier. Saloon rows among incoming cowboys, con men and restless soldiers visiting from Fort Dodge kept him busy on both sides of the Santa Fe tracks; midnight robberies on the streets of Dodge increased in number. Ed had courage enough and he enjoyed the respect of the citizenry, but Bat warned him that his easygoing manner and inborn gentleness would never inspire fear among the rapidly swelling number of hardcases in town.

The differences between Bat and Ed Masterson were of life-or-death importance to a frontier peace officer. Bat had the instincts and the reputation of a gunfighter; Ed did not. Bat rarely had to fire his revolvers in a fight, for the simple reason that most of his adversaries didn't dare shoot it out with him. In the absence of such encounters, he maintained his reputation and his expertise by constant practice. As his public - and his potential opponents - looked on, Bat would spend hour after hour shooting at empty cans and "sweetening" his guns. "We used to file the notch of the hammer," he later recalled, "till the trigger would pull sweet, which is another way of saying that the blamed gun would pretty near go off if you looked at it."

Ed Masterson never nursed his six-shooters and never felt the need to. His method was to talk - or try to talk - his adversaries into submission, and he wanted to go about cleaning up Dodge in his own way. Toward the end of March 1878, the Times carried this brief report: "City Marshal Masterson contemplates organizing a tramp brigade for the purpose of clearing the streets and alleys of the filth and rubbish that has been accumulating for a year or so. There are about thirty tramps now sojourning among us, all of whom have no visible means of support and are liable to arrest under the vagrant act."

Ed's tramp brigade never got into action. One night only a week or so after he proposed it, the marshal tried to disarm two drunken cowboys outside a saloon - with his own gun, as always, in its holster. Both men raised their revolvers, and Ed pinned one of them to a wall. At that point Bat Masterson came running across the Santa Fe tracks, taking a quick shot at the second cowboy as he did so. Not knowing it was Bat who was shooting, Ed let go of his man to draw his gun at last-and the freed cowboy got out his own six-shooter and fired. In seconds, the Mastersons shot both men, one fatally, but Ed stumbled off with a mortal wound. According to the Ford County Globe account, "His clothes were on fire from the discharge of the pistol, which had been placed against the right side of his abdomen and `turned loose."' A man standing nearby completed the story. "I saw him coming and in the darkness of the evening he seemed to be carrying a lighted cigar in his hand. I remarked to a friend that the cigar burned in a remarkably lively manner, but as the man drew near we saw that the fire was not at the end of a cigar but in the wadding of his coat. He fell dead at our feet."

Ed Masterson may not have been the gunfighter his brother was, but Dodge City perhaps loved him all the more for that. The next day, every business in town closed down and most doors were draped with black crepe. The young marshal's body lay in the parlor of the Dodge City Fire Company, to which he had belonged; the firemen claimed the honor of conducting his funeral. A choir stood at the coffin to sing a somber dirge: "Lay him low, lay him low, In the clover or the snow; What cares he, he cannot know." That afternoon almost every buggy and wagon in town joined the cortege bearing Ed Masterson to the military cemetery at Fort Dodge. The city council preceded the hearse, Bat Masterson rode alone behind it, and behind Bat came the 60 uniformed volunteers of the fire company.

The Mastersons were not yet finished in Dodge City. Later that spring the third brother, 23-year-old, Jim, joined the city marshal's force as a policeman. In the fall of the following year, Jim moved up to become marshal of Dodge. On the day he took office, Bat Masterson was defeated for re-election as sheriff.

Bat's gunfighting hand had lost none of its skill; his opponent, a dull-witted saloonkeeper named George Hinkel, won the election on an economy platform. An opposition newspaper gloated, "The `Gang' is no more in existence. It has lost its grip forever." Less than two years later, in 1881, that statement finally came true: Dog Kelley lost the mayoralty and Jim Masterson went out of office with him.

By then Bat had traveled far from Dodge. He came back now and then, especially when his brother needed him. Once, when Jim got into a shooting scrape with a saloonkeeper named Peacock and a bartender named Updegraff, Bat came all the way from New Mexico to lend a hand. A few minutes after he got off the train, he saw Peacock and Updegraff across the street. "I have come over a thousand miles to settle this," Bat called. "I know you are heeled; now fight!" The shooting lasted three or four minutes, with Bat sheltered behind an embankment. One bullet came so close that it threw some of the embankment dirt into his mouth. Another bullet passed through the Long Branch saloon, and another passed through Updegraff's lung. Both the saloon and the bartender were later repaired; Bat paid a $10 fine and left on the train the same night he arrived.

He continued his travels, flitting about the boomtowns of the West. In Colorado, he turned up as a gambler in Leadville, as town marshal in Trinidad. In another Colorado town called Creede, he combined both roles. As the manager of a gambling house, he patrolled his own premises in a lavender corduroy suit. As Creede's marshal, he kept such order in the streets that a Denver newspaper reported: "All the toughs and thugs fear him as they do no other dozen men in camp. Let an incipient riot start and all that is necessary to quell it is the whisper, `There comes Masterson."'

It could not last forever. As the years took their toll, Bat's reflexes slowed, his eye dimmed-and he knew that he could not live on his reputation alone. So he turned from the lawman's life, the gunfighter's life. One year, in Denver, he managed a saloon that featured a variety theater, and he married one of the actresses. He turned to promoting prize fights, lost his bank roll on bad bets and began drinking heavily. Denver was glad to see him go. He wound up in New York City - of all places - earning his living as a sports writer.

Bat Masterson was now a national celebrity, but he had unbuckled his gun belt for good. In 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt offered to appoint him the U.S. marshal for the Oklahoma Territory, Bat turned him down in a letter that combined sadness with common sense. "I am not the man for the job," he wrote the President. "Oklahoma is still woolly, and if I were marshal some youngster would try to put me out because of my reputation. I would be a bait for grownup 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."

Gilbert King. When New York City Tamed the Feared Gunslinger Bat Masterson. Smithsonian . April 3, 2013.
Paul Trachtman. The Gunfighters (Old West Time-Life Series) Time-Life Books Editors. Time-Life, 1974.

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