“I have come or a thousand miles to settle this! I know you are heeled, now fight!”
With this belligerent cry, Bat Masterson began the final shootout of his fabled career as a gunslinger on today’s date, April 16, in 1881.
“Bat” Masterson’s Rise as a Gunfighter
Bartholemew “Bat” Masterson (pictured above, circa 1879) had been born on November 26, 1856, the second of five boys of a Kansas homesteader. Two of Bat’s brothers, Jim and Ed also became known for their exploits with the guns, but it was Bat, with his slate-blue eyes, compact build, and handsome mustachioed appearance who became the best known of the three. He fought his first gun battle in Sweetwater Texas in 1876. It seems that he had taken up with a local girl named Molly Brennan. BUT, Molly had a boyfriend, one US Army Sergeant Melvin King, who found them together one night. King began shooting, and apparently, Molly threw herself in front of Bat to protect him from King’s bullets. Molly was killed instantly when one of King’s bullets passed through her, and lodged in Bat’s pelvis. King was cocking his gun for another shot when Bat got off a fatal shot at King as he fell. While convalescing, Masterson used a cane to help himself walk. He had a slight limp thereafter, but even after he no longer needed the cane, he carried it – likely as an adornment to his rather dandified appearance.
“Bat” Masterson as an Elected, Official Lawman
He joined his brothers as lawmen in the rugged town of Dodge City, Kansas in 1877 wherein he served as a sheriff’s deputy alongside Wyatt Earp. He was later elected sheriff of Ford County in Kansas. In this job, he won accolades for his capture of the train-robbing Roark Gang, and for leading the posse that captured the killer Jim Kenedy, whom he wound up killing with a shot through the shoulder. During this time, Masterson was involved in a shootout which lead to the death of Ed, his older brother. Ed was attempting to arrest two cattle drivers, Jack Wagner and Alf Walker, when he was killed.
Bat was nearby and claimed to have fired the shots which felled Wagner (who died the next day). Contemporary newspaper accounts were ambiguous as to whether Bat had actually played such a pivotal role in the fight, but Bat’s testimony in subsequent court cases on the (pictured above, Masterson’s Colt Revolver) fight leave little doubt that he had played the role of his older brother’s avenger. In spite of having thus acquired a reputation of being a tough, reliable lawman, Bat was defeated for re-election as Ford County Sheriff in 1879.
Masterson’s Last Gunfight – April 16, 1881
His last fight came in 1881 during a time when Bat earned a living as a gambler. He was in Tombstone. Arizona when he received news that his younger brother Jim was having trouble back in Dodge with two business associates, A.J. Peacock and Al Updegraff. Bat immediately boarded a train for Kansas. It was within minutes of his arrival in Dodge that Bat spied his brother’s two antagonists across the street, triggering his cry that he had travelled far to settle the matter. The gunfight lasted for three or four minutes with Peacock and Updegraff taking cover around the corner of the city jail, and Bat diving behind a railway embankment. Several other bystanders became involved, and at one point a shot ricocheted close enough to Bat that he could taste the dirt in his mouth. Eventually, Updegraff was wounded when one of Bat’s shots pierced his right lung. The local officials in Dodge soon arrived and put an end to the gun play. Updegraff was wounded along with a bystander, but nobody was killed. It was decided that by Western standards, the fight had been conducted fairly enough, and after paying a $10.00 fine, Bat Masterson left town that very evening.
Masterson’s Philosophy of the Gunfight(er)…..
Although Bat Masterson (pictured, above with “The Dodge City Peace Commission”, circa 1883. Masterson is standing, second from right; Wyatt Earp is seated, second from left) never again participated in another gunfight, his fame as a gunslinger/lawman followed him the rest of his life (Bat pictured below in later years). He continued to drift around the west earning his keep as a gambler, and as a town Marshall, and combining the two roles of gambling house manager and town Marshall in Crede, Colorado. Before his death of natural causes in 1921, he turned to writing. Writing in the publication “Human Life” in 1907, he produced the following maxims which shed some light on the attitudes which brought him his life as a fabled gunfighter:
“Courage to step out and fight to the death with a pistol is but one of three qualities a man must possess in order to last very long in this hazardous business. Courage is of little use to a man who essays to arbitrate a difference with the pistol if he is inexperienced in the use of the weapon he is going to use. Then again he may possess both the courage and the experience and still fail if he lacks deliberation.
“Any man who does not possess courage, proficiency in the use of firearms, and deliberation had better make up his mind at the beginning to settle his personal differences in some other manner than by appeal to the pistol. I have known men in the West whose courage could not be questioned and whose expertness with the pistol was simply marvelous, who fell easy victims before men who added deliberation to the other two qualities.”
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“The Gunfighters” by Paul Trachtman, Time/ Life Books “The Old West” Series, Time/Life Books, New York, 1974.
“The Gunfighter: Man or Myth?” by Joseph G. Rosa, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1964, pp. 115-16