Tombstone History Archives
Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years
How Wyatt Earp Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws
August 2, 1896
How Wyatt Earp Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws
It may be that the trail of blood will seem to lie too thickly over the pages that I write. If I had it in me to invent a tale I would fain lighten the crimson stain so that it would glow no deeper than a demure pink.
But half a lifetime on the frontier attunes a man’s hand to the six-shooter rather than the pen, and it is lucky that I am asked only for facts, for more than facts I could not give.
Half a lifetime of such turbulent days and nights as will never again be seen in this, or, I believe, in any land, might be expected to tangle a man’s brain with memories none too easy to sift apart. But for the corner-stone of this episodic narrative I cannot make better choice than the bloody feud in Tombstone, Ariz., which cost me a brave brother and cost more than one worthless life among the murderous dogs who pursued me an mine only less bitterly than I pursued them.
And so I marshal my characters. My stalwart brothers, Virgil and Morgan, shall stand on the right side of the stage with my dear old comrade, Doc Holliday; on the left shall be arrayed Ike Clanton, Sheriff Behan, Curley Bill and the rest. Fillin the stage with miners, gamblers, rustlers, stage robbers, murderers and cowboys, and the melodrama is ready to begin. Nor shall a heroine be wanting, for Big Nose Kate was shaped for the part both by nature and circumstances. Poor Kate! Frontier whisky must have laid her low long since. And that gives me an opportunity to introduce the reader to both Doc Holliday and Kate by telling of an episode in their checkered lives two years before the action of my melodrama begins.
It happened in ‘77, when I was City Marshal of Dodge City, Kan. I had followed the trail of some cattle-thieves across the boarder into Texas, and during a short stay in Fort Griffin I first met Doc Holliday and the woman who was known variously as Big Nose Kate, Kate Fisher and, on occasions of ceremony, Mrs. Doc Holliday. Holliday asked me a good many questions about Dodge City and seemed inclined to go there, but before he had made up his mind about it my business called me over to Fort Clarke. It was while I was on my way back to Fort Griffin that my new friend and his Kate found it necessary to pull their stakes hurriedly. Whereof the plain unvarnished facts were these:
Doc Holliday was spending the evening in a poker game, which was his custom whenever the faro bank did not present superior claims on his attention. On his right sat Ed Bailey, who needs no description because he is soon to drop out of this narrative. The trouble began, as it was related to me afterward, by Ed Bailey monkeying with the deadwood, or what people who live in the cities call discards. Doc Holliday admonished him once or twice to “play poker” -which is your seasoned gambler’s method of cautioning a friend to stop cheating- but the misguided Bailey persisted in his furtive attentions to the deadwood. Finally, having detected him again, Holliday pulled down a pot without showing his hand, which he had a perfect right to do. Thereupon Bailey started to throw his gun around on Holliday, as might have been expected. But before he could pull the trigger Doc Holliday had jerked a knife out of his breast-pocket and with one sideways sweep had caught Bailey just below the brisket.
Well, that broke up the game, and pretty soon Doc Holliday was sitting cheerfully in the front room of the hotel, guarded by the City Marshal and a couple of policemen, while a hundred miners and gamblers clamored for his blood. You see, he had not lived in Fort Griffin very long, while Ed Bailey was well liked. It wasn’t long before Big Nose Kate, who had a room down town, heard about the trouble and went up to take a look at her Doc through a back window. What she saw and heard led her to think that his life wasn’t worth ten minutes’ purchase, and I don’t believe it was. There was a shed at the back of the lot, and a horse was stabled in it. She was a kind-hearted girl, was Kate, for she went to the trouble of leading the horse into the alley and tethering it there before she set fire to the shed. She also got a six-shooter from a friend down the street, which, with the one she always carried, made two.
It happened just as she had planned it. The shed blazed up and she hammered at the door, yelling “Fire!” Everybody rushed out, except the Marshal, the constables and their prisoner. Kate walked in as bold as a lion, threw one of her six-shooters on the Marshal and handed the other to Doc Holliday.
“Come on, Doc,” she said with a laugh.
He didn’t need any second invitation and the two of them backed out of the hotel, keeping the officers covered. All the night they hid among the willows down by the creek, and early next morning a friend
of Kate’s brought them two horses and some of Doc’s clothes from his room. Kate dressed up in a pair of pants, a pair of boots, a shirt and a hat, and the pair of them got away safely and rode the 400 miles to Dodge City, where they were installed with great style when I got back home.
Which reminds me that during my absence the man whom I had left behind as a deputy had been killed by some cowboys who were engaged in a fascinating recreation known as “shootin’ up the town.” This incident is merely mentioned as a further sign of the time, and a further excuse for the blood which cannot but trickle through the web of my remembrance.
Such, then, was the beginning of my acquaintance with Doc Holliday, the mad, merry scamp with heart of gold and nerves of steel, who, in the dark years that followed stood at my elbow in many a battle to the death. He was a dentist, but he preferred to be a gambler. He was a Virginian, but he preferred to be a frontiersman and a vagabond. He was a philosopher, but he preferred to be a wag. He was long, lean, an ash-blonde, and the quickest man with a six-shooter that I ever knew. It wasn’t long after I returned to Dodge City that his quickness saved my life. He saw a man draw on me behind my back. “Look out, Wyatt” he shouted, but while the words were coming out of his mouth he had jerked his pistol out of his pocket and shot the other fellow before the latter could fire.
On such incidents as that are built the friendships of the frontier.
In 1879 Dodge City was beginning to lose much of the snap which had given it a charm to men of restless blood, and I decided to move to Tombstone, which was just building up a reputation. Doc Holliday thought he would move with me. Big-Nose Kate had left him long before -they were always a quarrelsome couple- and settled in Las Vegas, N. M. He looked her up en route, and, the old tenderness reasserting itself, she resolved to throw in her lot with his in Arizona. As for me, I was tired of the trial of a peace officer’s life and wanted no more of it. But as luck would have it I stopped at Prescott to see my brother Virgil, and while there I met C. P. Dake, the United States Marshal of the Territory. Dake had heard of me before, and he begged me so hard to take the deputyship in Tombstone that I finally consented. It was thus that the real troubles of a lifetime began.
The boom had not struck Tombstone then, but it did a few months later, when the mills for treating ore were completed, and tales about the fabulous richness of the silver mines were bruited abroad. Before long the town had a population of 10,000 or 12,000, of whom about 300 were cattle-thieves, stage robbers, murderers and outlaws.
For the first eight months I worked as a shotgun messenger for Wells, Fargo & Co., and beyond the occasional excitement of an abortive hold-up attempt and a few excursions after cattle-thieves and homocides in my official capacity, everything was quiet as the grave. Then the proprietors of “The Oriental,” the biggest gambling-house in town, offered to take me into partnership. One of them -his name was Rickabaugh and he was a San Francisco man- was unpopular, and a coterie of the tough gamblers were trying to run the firm out of town. The proprietors had an idea that their troubles would cease if the had the Deputy United States Marshal for a partner, and so it proved, for a time at least. So I turned over my position with Wells, Fargo & Co. to my brother Morgan, who held it for six months, after which I gave him a job in “The Oriental.” My brother Virgil also joined me, and when the town was incorporated he was appointed Chief of Police.
About this time was laid the foundation of the vendetta which became the talk of the frontier and resulted in no end of bloodshed.
A band of rustlers held up the coach and killed the driver and one of the passengers. Virgil and I, with another man, followed them into mountains for seventeen days, but our horses gave out and they got away from us. When we got back to town I went to Ike Clanton, who was a sort of leader among the rustlers, and offered to give him all the $6,000 reward offered by Wells, Fargo & Co. if he would lead me to where I could arrest the murderers. After thinking about it deeply he agreed to send a partner of his, named Joe Hill, to lead them from where they were hiding to some place within twenty-five miles of Tombstone, where I could get them. But in case I killed his partners he wanted to be sure that the reward would be paid alive or dead. In order to assure him I got Wells-Fargo’s agent, Marshall Williams, to telegraph to San Francisco about it, and a reply came in the affirmative. So Clanton sent Hill off to decoy the men I wanted. That was to take several days, and in the meantime Marshal Williams got drunk, and, suspecting that I was using Ike Clanton for some purpose, tried to pump him about it. Clanton was terrified at the thought of any third person knowing of our bargain and accused me of having told Williams. I denied it, and then he accused me of having told Doc Holliday. Fear and whisky robbed Clanton of his discretion and he let out his secret to Holliday, who had known nothing about it. Doc Holliday, who was the soul of honor, berated him vigorously for his treachery, and the conversation was heard by several people.
That was enough for Clanton. He knew that his only alternative was to kill us or be killed by his own people. Early next morning Virgil and I were told that he was out with a Winchester and a six-shooter looking for us. So we went out looking for him, taking different routes. Virgil was going down Fourth street when Clanton came out of a hallway, looking in the opposite direction. “I want you, Ike,” said Virgil, walking up behind him. Clanton threw his gun around and tried to take a shot, but Virgil knocked it away, pulled his own and arrested his man. Ike was fined $25 for disturbing the peace.
Ike Clanton’s next move was to telegraph Charleston, ten miles away, for Billy Clanton, Tom McLowery, Frank McLowery and Billy Clayton -hard men, every one. They came galloping into town, loaded up with ammunition and swearing to kill us off in short order. Thirty or forty citizens offered us their help, but we said we could manage the job alone. “What had we better do?” said Virgil. “Go and arrest ‘em,” said I.
The four newcomers and Ike Clanton stationed themselves on a fifteen-foot lot between two buildings in Fremont street and sent us word that if we did not come down there and fight they would waylay and kill us. So we started after them -Doc Holliday, Virgil, Morgan and I. As we came to the lot they moved back and got their backs against one of the buildings. “I’m going to arrest you, boys,” said Virgil. For answer their six-shooters began to spit. Frank McLowery fired at me and Billy Clanton at Morgan. Both missed. I had a gun in my overcoat pocket and I jerked it out at Frank McLowery, hitting him in the stomach. At the same time Morgan shot Billy Clanton in the breast. So far we had got the best of it, but just then Tom McLowery, who had got behind his horse, fired under the animal’s neck and bored a hole through Morgan sideways. The bullet entered one shoulder and came out the other.
“I’ve got it, Wyatt!” said Morgan.
“Then get behind me and keep quiet,” I said -but he didn’t.
By this time bullets were flying so fast that I could not keep track of them. Frank McLowery had given a yell when I shot him, and made for the street, with his hand over his stomach. Ike Clanton and Billy Clayton were shooting fast, and so was Virgil, and the two latter made a break for the street. I fired a shot which hit Tom McLowery’s horse and made it break away, and Doc Holliday took the opportunity to pump a charge of buckshot out of a Wells-Fargo shotgun into Tom McLowery, who promptly fell dead. In the excitement of the moment Doc Holliday didn’t know what he had done and flung away the shotgun in disgust, pulling his six-shooter instead.
Then I witnessed a strange spectacle. Frank McLowery and Billy Clanton were sitting in the middle of the street, both badly wounded, but emptying their six-shooters like lightning. One of them shot Virgil through the leg and he shot Billy Clanton. Then Frank McLowery started to his feet and staggered across the street, though he was full of bullets. On the way he came face to face with Doc Holliday. “I’ve got ye now, Doc,” he said. “Well, you’re a good one if you have,” said Holliday with a laugh. With that they both aimed. But before you can understand what happened next I must carry the narrative back a half a minute.
After the first exchange in the lot Ike Clanton had got into one of the buildings from the rear and when I reached the street he was shooting out of one of the front windows. Seeing him aim at Morgan I shouted: “Look out, Morg, you’re getting it in the back!”
Morgan wheeled round and in doing so fell on his side. While in that position he caught sight of Doc Holliday and Frank McLowery aiming at each other. With a quick drop he shot McLowery in the head. At the same instant McLowery’s pistol flashed and Doc Holliday was shot in the hip.
That ended the fight. Ike Clanton and Billy Clanton ran off and made haste to give themselves up to the Sheriff, for the citizens were out a hundred strong to back us up.
I have described this battle with as much particularity as possible, partly because there are not many city dwellers who have more than a vague idea of what such a fight really means, and partly because I was rather curious how it would look in cold type. It may or may not surprise some readers to learn that from the first to the last shot fired not more than a minute elapsed.
Of the exciting events which followed I can give no more than a brief account. The principal factor in all that happened was Sheriff Johnny Behan, my political rival and personal enemy. Doc Holliday and I were arrested on a charge of murder. My two brothers were exempt from this proceeding because they were both disabled. We were acquitted at the preliminary hearing and rearrested on another warrant charging the same offense. This time the hearing was held at Contention, nine miles from Tombstone, and we would have been assassinated on the road had not a posse of the best citizens insisted on accompanying the Sheriff as a guard. The hearing was never completed, because Holliday and I were released on a writ of habeas corpus. In the meantime the Grand Jury persistently refused to indict us.
But the determination to assassinate us never relaxed. Three months later Virgil was returning home to the hotel, and when he was half way across the street five double-barreled shotguns were discharged at him from an ambuscade. One shot shattered his left arm and another passed through his body. I arrested several of the assassins, but twenty or thirty rustlers swore to an alibi and they were acquitted.
Three months later, before Virgil had recovered from his wounds, Morgan was shot dead through the glass door of a saloon, while he was playing a game of pool. I sent his body home to Colton, Cal., and shipped off Virgil -a physical wreck- on the same train from Tucson. But even at the depot I was forced to fight Ike Clanton and four or five of his friends who had followed us to do murder. One of them, named Frank Stillwell, who was believed to be Morgan’s murderer, was killed by my gun going off when he grasped it. When I returned to Tombstone Sheriff Behan came to arrest me, but I refused to surrender and he weakened. For a long time thereafter I occupied the anomalous position of being a fugitive from the county authorities, and performing the duties of Deputy United States Marshal, with the sanction and moral support of my chief. With Doc Holliday and one or two faithful comrades I went into camp among the hills and withstood more than one attack from outlaws who had been implicated in the death of one brother and the disablement another - attacks which resulted fatally to some of my enemies and left me without a scratch.
One such encounter I will describe because it illustrates as well as anything could some of the exigencies of a frontier vendetta.
We had ridden twenty-five miles over the mountains with the intention of camping at a certain spring. As we got near the place I had a presentiment that something was wrong, and unlimbered my shotgun. Sure enough, nine cowboys sprang up from the bank where the spring was and began firing at us. I jumped off my horse to return fire, thinking my men would do the same, but they retreated. One of the cowboys, who was trying to pump some lead into me with a Winchester, was a fellow named Curly Bill, a stage-robber whom I had been after for eight months, and for whom I had a warrant in my pocket. I fired both barrels of my gun into him, blowing him all to pieces. With that the others jumped into a clump of willows and kept on firing, so I retreated, keeping behind my horse. He was a high-strung beast, and the firing frightened him so that whenever I tried to get my Winchester he would rear up and keep it out of my reach. When I had backed out about a hundred yards I started to mount. Now, it was a hot day, and I had loosened my cartridge belt about two or three holes. When I tried to get astride I found that it had fallen down over my thighs, keeping my legs together. While I was perched up thus, trying to pull my belt higher with one hand, the horn of the saddle was shot off. However, I got away all right, and just then my men rallied. But I did not care to go back at the rustlers, so we sought out another water hole for camp. The skirt of my overcoat was shot to pieces on both sides, but not a bullet had touched me.
Sheriff Behan trailed us with a big posse composed of rustlers, but it was only a bluff, for when I left word for him where he could find us and waited for him to come he failed to appear.
My best friends advised me to leave the Territory, so I crossed into Colorado. While I was there they tried to get a requisition for me, but the Governor refused to sign it.
It’s an old story now. I have been in Arizona of recent years -as near Tombstone as Tucson, in fact- but no one sought to molest me. The outlaws who were my worst enemies are mostly killed off or in the penitentiary. Poor Doc Holliday died of consumption three years ago in Colorado. My brother Virgil is running a stock ranch in Texas. A large section of his upper arm is entirely without bone, and yet he can use his fingers.
On reading it over it seems to me that there is not only too much blood, but too much of myself in my story. However, a man gets in the habit of thinking about himself when he spends half a lifetime on the frontier.
Wyatt S. Earp