The Wild, Wild West

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He killed for the first time three years later: a blacksmith called Windy Cahill, in a saloon near Camp Grant, Arizona. There followed some gambling and some horse stealing. He was next a principal figure in the celebrated Lincoln County War, an affair which, including skirmishes and at least one pitched battle, went on for more than a year. The villains of this “war” were politicians, involved in their customary muttonheaded struggle for power, and guilty of their customary nonfeasance, misfeasance, and malfeasance. The Kid seems to have been caught up in it chiefly because he wasn’t old enough to know any better. Several persons were killed in the course of this “war,” and the Kid may have killed one or more of them; none can say for sure. In any case, his side lost, and for the rest of his brief life he was an outlaw, a hunted man.

He stole some more livestock. He killed a man named Joe Grant, who had thought to shoot first. He rode with some exceedingly case-hardened characters, including Hendry Brown, John Middleton, and Dave Rudabaugh. Sheriff Pat Garrett and a posse first caught the Kid near Stinking Springs. He stood trial for murder, was found guilty, and was sentenced to be hanged. There were two men guarding him in the jail at Lincoln, but the Kid managed James Miller, to whom Thompson gave bond for his appearance when he might be wanted later.

Is it possible Earp was not there at all?

In May, 1874, Earp arrived in Wichita, another rowdy cowtown, where, he said later, Mayor Jim Hope promptly made him the marshal. Let Earp speak: “In two years at Wichita my deputies and I arrested more than eight hundred men. In all that time I had to shoot but one man—and that only to disarm him. All he got was a flesh wound.”

And now a look at the minutes of the Wichita city commission. They show that Earp was elected on April 21, 1875, as one of two policemen to serve under the marshal and assistant marshal. They show further that on April 19, 1876, the commission voted against rehiring him. A month later it was recommended that the vagrancy act be enforced against Earp and his brother Jim.

Judging from the Wichita newspapers, Earp seems not to have won much of a reputation during his one year as a policeman. They keep referring to him as “Policeman Erp,” which makes him sound like a walking advertisement for Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic. Now and then he arrested a suspected horse thief; but the longest newspaper story about him describes how he was arrested, fined, and fired from the police force for violating the peace on April 5, 1876. All this resulted from an election-eve fracas in which Earp slugged an opposition candidate for city marshal. And so he turned up in Dodge City, another cowtown.

Dodge was run by a small clique of saloonkeepers who, as the years went on, took turns at being mayor. Most saloons were routinely outfitted with gambling layouts. In 1878 the town council enacted an ordinance against gambling. Had its members gone out of their minds? No: they were moved by sound common sense. For, with a law on the books prohibiting gambling, any chump who complained that he had been cheated could be forthwith walked Spanish to the hoosegow on the grounds that he had been breaking the law.

A town run along these lines clearly required something special in the way of a peace officer: a man who would know how and when to enforce the freakish laws, who would know how to wink at the artful ways in which cowpokes from Texas were mulcted. We are told that the saloonkeeper who was mayor in 1876 sent for Wyatt Earp.

Earp told his skillful biographer, Stuart Lake, that he appointed Bat Masterson as one of his deputies. Earp also asserted that he was paid $250 a month, plus a fee of $2.50 for each arrest; he and his deputies, he said, arrested some three hundred persons a month, or enough to bring in about $750 a month. (One month in 1877, he recalled, the fees reached almost $1,000 from nearly four hundred arrests; that was the peak.) Earp’s share would have brought his income to more than $400 a month, nice money for the time and place.

And now to the town records. Earp was never marshal of Dodge. He served two terms as assistant marshal: from May, 1876, to September, 1876, and from May, 1878, to September, 1879. (During that month of 1877 when, by his own account, he and his deputies arrested nearly four hundred rowdy cowboys, Earp was not a peace officer at all. In fact, he was himself arrested that month for brawling with a dance-hall girl.) His salary as assistant marshal was $75 a month. The fee paid for an arrest (and conviction) was only $2. The docket of the police court shows that during 1878 there were only sixtyfour arrests; during 1879 there were only twentynine arrests.

One interpretation of this remarkable decline in arrests—from three hundred or four hundred a month in 1876-77 to just four a month in 1878-79 —is that lion-hearted Wyatt Earp had tamed the town. There is another interpretation.

At all events, it is clear that Earp’s income in 1878 could not have been much more than $80 a month—not much money for the time and place. Bat Masterson’s income was about the same. Both had to add to it. Both did: as professional gamblers.