- Historic Sites
The Wild, Wild West
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
Here are two of the regnant superheroes of the televised Wild West. Once upon a time they faced the same foes in the same filmed fables, but times have changed ; they have gone their separate sponsored ways. This is a pity, for in real life the two were thick as thieves.
Each week we are shown—in bland, bright little slices of televised entertainment—just how they scrubbed the Wild West clean, including the back of its neck and behind its ears. Clean-cut and cleanshaven, Wyatt romances Nellie Cashman, the “miners’ angel,” or he avenges the murder of some Indian friends, or he traps some mining executives who would thieve silver bullion. Elegant and cleanshaven, Bat foils a horse-race swindler, or he gallantly assists some ladies in their struggle for woman’s rights, or by examining the brushwork he perceives that some oil paintings are spurious. All this is only so much ingenious fretwork on the EarpMasterson legend, contrived by worthy successors to the staff writers of the “National Police Gazette.” But the legend is itself such an imposing structure as to require no further embellishment.
The legend tells us that Marshal Earp cleaned up two Kansas cowtowns, Ellsworth and Wichita, singlehanded. He then joined forces with Bat Masterson to clean up Dodge City, “the wickedest little city in America.” So much accomplished, Marshal Earp turned his attention to the featherweight task of pacifying Tombstone, Arizona, a hotbed of outlaws unparalleled in history, whilst Sheriff Masterson proceeded to stamp out sin in the mining camps of Colorado. Thereafter both men retired, breathing easily, having made the Wild West safe for the effete tenderfeet of the East.
Both men, the legend adds, were courteous to women, modest, handsome, and blue-eyed. We are also told that Earp was the Wild West’s speediest and deadliest gun fighter. For his part, Masterson disdained to pull a gun, preferring to clout an adversary senseless with his cane, whence his nickname. But he was quite willing to testify to his pal’s prowess and so contribute to the legend. Earp, so Masterson has assured us, could kill a coyote with his Colt .45 at four hundred yards.∗
∗Such skill calls for some respectful analysis. At foui hundred yards a coyote cannot be seen against his natural background, so we shall assume the animal is silhouetted against the sky. Even so. an expert using a rifle with a globe sight would congratulate himself if he hit such a target with any regularity, much more if he killed it. A pistol, of course, will not carry so far directly; the marksman must use Kentucky windage—i.e., he must aim appreciably above his target so that his bullet will carry. Masterson admitted that “luck figures largely in such shooting.” If. instead of “largely,” he had said “romplelclv.” lie wmikl have come closer to that coyote.
Masterson himself, who was in truth a poor shot, killed at most four men throughout his career (not counting Indians). Indeed, these two differ sharply from other Wild West heroes in that they rarely fired their six-guns in anger. They were both sly, cunning, cautious men, who early learned that shooting might reap a bloody harvest. In consequence, they walked warily, carrying a big bluff. In their time, the Wild West killer and outlaw was dying out, to be replaced by the confidence man. Confidence men rarely kill ; they are too artful. Both Earp and Masterson were, among other things, eager students of the technique of early confidence games.
They first met in 1872, when both were hunting buffalo on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas, in direct violation of the Indian treaty. Earp was twentyfour; Masterson was nineteen. They seem to have recognized that they were kindred souls, but they parted, not to come together again until the summer of 1876, in Dodge City. During those four years Bat was, so to say, preparing himself to be a peace officer. He stole forty ponies from some Indians and sold them for $1,200, he killed other Indians both as a free-lance buffalo hunter and as an army scout, and he got into a brawl with an army sergeant at Sweetwater, Texas, over a dance-hall girl. The girl was killed while trying to shield Masterson; Bat was wounded, but he killed the soldier.
Meantime Earp, by his own account, had engaged in even more impressive heroics. First there was his mettlesome exploit at Ellsworth in 1873. To hear him tell it, Earp stepped out of a crowd, unknown and unheralded, and stalked alone across that familiar sun-baked plaza to disarm an able and truculent gun fighter, the Texas gambler Ben Thompson. Not only that, but Thompson was backed up at the time by a hundred pugnacious cowboy friends. How could Earp ever have dared to do it? He would seem to have been cloaked in invisibility, for others who were present never saw him—not the reporter for the Ellsworth newspaper; not Thompson himself; not Deputy Sheriff Hogue, to whom Thompson voluntarily turned over his gun; and not Mayor