The Men With The Badge
The guardians of Western law and order held a variety of titles: town marshal, county sheriff, state or territorial ranger, federal marshal. But whatever their status, their colleague, Sheriff Bat Masterson, saw them as "just plain ordinary men who could shoot straight and had the most utter courage and perfect nerve - and, for the most part, a keen sense of right and wrong."
Between the town marshal and the county sheriff, the sheriff had the edge in power as well as prestige. He was the county's chief peace officer and sometimes its chief executive. Many sheriffs took pride in personally tracking down and apprehending the lawless; but many others, like most U.S. marshals, preferred to leave this job to gunfighting deputies and devote most of their time to politics and money-making. In almost every county, the sheriff won his post by a hotly contested election, and he needed a politician's craft and flimflam. There were exceptions, of course; when Bat Masterson ran for sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, he told the voters, "I have no pledges to make, as pledges are usually considered mere clap-trap." But, once a sheriff attained office, he could scarcely avoid finding it profitable, for much of his time was spent collecting county taxes, and often he received a percentage of the take. Combined, in some states, with a certain amount of judicious graft from road-building and other county contracts he dispensed, that sort of income could make a man wealthy: Sheriff John Behan, the Earps' enemy in Tombstone, was reputed to have raked in $40,000 a year during his term.
Such bonanzas aside, a host of practical everyday duties went with the sheriff's job. All sheriffs were expected to maintain the county jail, serve court orders and sell the property of tax delinquents. In addition, some sheriffs had to take on a variety of odd jobs created by problems peculiar to their areas. In Wyoming they inspected the owners' brands on all horses that were to be driven out of the state, to guard against their theft. Utah's sheriffs maintained not only the county jails but also the county dog pounds. In Colorado, sheriffs had to help fight forest fires, in Texas they helped to eradicate prairie dogs and in New Mexico they went out in search of straying livestock.
At the third level of law enforcement-the town - these extra assignments multiplied; indeed, town marshals often had more duties than they could keep track of. Lethal showdowns and shoot-outs made some of these lawmen famous far beyond their localities, but work of a less heroic nature took up most of their time. In many places, a town marshal carried out the functions of a health inspector, a fire inspector and a sanitation commissioner. Sometimes he collected town taxes, as well as the license fees that were required of saloons, places of prostitution and owners of pet dogs; the experience thus gained occasionally enabled him to earn a few dollars on the side as a bill collector for some private entrepreneur. Other typical demands on the town marshal's time included serving subpoenas, presiding over the local jail, keeping official records of arrests and of the property taken from prisoners in his custody, giving evidence at trials and maintaining order in his town's police court.
Some of the most celebrated gunfighters of the West carried out these mundane tasks and more. In Abilene, Wild Bill Hickok kept the streets clear of litter as well as unruly cowboys; to supplement his $150-a-month salary, he also got 50 cents for every unlicensed dog he shot within the city limits. In Tombstone, Virgil Earp had to hunt down an "accordion fiend" who kept the townspeople awake at night.
Even when a marshal exercised his most vaunted power and made an arrest, it usually turned out to be a pretty prosaic affair. In one typical month at Tombstone, for example, Virgil Earp and his deputies made 48 arrests. Of the total, 18 stemmed from drunk-and-disorderly charges, and 14 were for disturbing the peace. Only eight involved violence or the threat of violence: four for assault, three for carrying concealed weapons and one for resisting an officer. The remainder dealt with a miscellany of such misdeeds as petty theft and reckless buggy driving.
But that record is deceptive. It does not accurately reflect the tinderbox instability of a frontier town, or the sudden deadly flare-ups that brought lawmen running, their guns at the ready. Many such episodes occurred in the towns of Texas or Kansas or Montana when cowboys arrived from the range dusty, tired and lonesome. Within a few hours - cleaned up and liquored up, with full pockets and weeks of boredom to work off - they would be out on the streets, ready for fun and looking for trouble. Their day might end in tragedy - in a gunfight with a crooked gambler or a fatal quarrel over the shopworn favors of a prostitute. Even comparatively harmless horseplay could turn dangerous, especially when cowboys "hurrahed" a town by riding through at a full gallop, yelling and yipping and shooting into the air. A typical incident of this sort took place in Dodge City, Kansas, on a steamy July night in 1878.
A man named Charles Bassett was town marshal at the time; Wyatt Earp was assistant marshal; Bat Masterson's younger brother Jim was a policeman on the city force, and Bat himself was sheriff of the surrounding county. At about 3 a.m., two cowboys drifted out of the Lady Gay saloon, by now presumably ready to return to their camp just outside of town. What happened next was reported by the Dodge City Times. The cowboys "buckled on their revolvers, which they were not allowed to wear around town, and mounted their horses. All at once one of them conceived the idea that to finish the night's revelry and give the natives due warning of his departure, he must do some shooting, and forthwith he commenced to bang away, one of the bullets whizzing into a dance hall nearby, causing no little commotion among the participants in the `dreamy waltz' and quadrille."
The famous vaudevillian Eddie Foy was performing at Dodge City that week and happened to be in the Lady Gay on the night of the hurrah. When some bullets strayed into the saloon, Foy recalled, "everybody dropped to the floor at once, according to custom. Bat Masterson was just in the act of dealing in a game of Spanish monte with Doc Holliday, and I was impressed by the instantaneous manner in which they flattened out like pancakes on the floor."
Outside, on the dark street, the affair suddenly changed from a prank of two cowboys who were letting off steam to a dead-serious duel between a pair of armed, mounted men and a pair of lawmen on foot. Hearing the shooting, Jim Masterson and Wyatt Earp had raced to the scene and they now began to exchange volleys with the galloping riders. In no time at all a fifth man injected himself into the fray. According to the Times, "some rooster who did not understand the situation perched himself in the window of the dance hall and indulged in a promiscuous shoot all by himself." After a few chaotic moments, the lawmen drove the cowboys off. As they clattered over a bridge leading out of town, either Masterson or Earp - no one ever learned which - winged one of the riders and brought him down.
Except for the wounded cowboy, a young Texan named George Hoy, nobody had even been hit. The Lady Gay had a few new bullet holes to join those that already pocked its walls and ceiling. Eddie Foy also sustained damage to some clothes that were hanging in his dressing room. "I had just bought a new eleven-dollar suit," he wrote. "When I went back to get it after the bombardment, I found that it had been penetrated by three bullets, and one of them had started a ring of fire smoldering around the hole." Dodge City's residents agreed that the wounded cowboy had received his just deserts, though somewhat to their surprise they found themselves genuinely sorry when George Hoy died a few weeks later. "George was nothing but a poor cowboy," wrote the Ford County Globe, "but his brother cowboys permitted him to want for nothing during his illness, and buried him in grand style when dead, which was very creditable to them."
If the people of Dodge felt any remorse, it was fleeting. Ornery cowboys were the bane of all cattle towns, and local lawmen were to be applauded for keeping them from shooting up the place. Four years after George Hoy's premature death, Dodge acquired a tough new town marshal, a Kansas gunfighter named Jack Bridges. The members of the city council were so pleased with his handling of the cowboy problem that within a year they raised his salary from $100 to $15 0 a month; a joking newspaper editor implied that they also added a fringe benefit by which Bridges and his assistant marshal were now "entitled to kill a cowboy or two each season."
The appointment of Bridges set off a sharp little flurry of civic controversy between Dodge City and the neighboring town of Caldwell over the relative merits of their lawmen. Such arguments were not uncommon in an era of bursting local pride. A Caldwell newspaper fired the opening shot when Bridges was named to the job: "Jack," it said, "belongs to the killer class, and it is only a question of time when he will lay down with his boots on." The Dodge folks seethed. "Caldwell, through her newspapers, is jealous of Dodge City," retorted the Dodge City Times; then the paper moved in for the counterattack: "Caldwell is incapable of selfgovernment. Three city marshals have been cowardly slain in that city." The Times heaped fresh coals on the fire when it published a letter from a reader declaring that the editor of the Caldwell paper possessed "the venom of the reptile, the sliminess of the toad and the odoriferous qualities of the skunk."
Even an impartial observer would have conceded that Caldwell's experience with lawmen had been at best ill-starred. The Dodge City Times had not exaggerated in pointing out that three of Caldwell's town marshals had been "cowardly slain" - though in fact only one of them had died while in office. George Flatt had been a drunken braggart, but a superb gunfighter nevertheless - one of the few men who really could shoot to kill with both hands. Before winning his appointment as the marshal of Caldwell he had made his reputation while serving on a posse, when he shot down two badmen almost simultaneously though under fire himself. Soon after leaving office, while strolling down Caldwell's Main Street at one o'clock in the morning, Flatt was ambushed by a gang of assailants and cut down in a hail of bullets and buckshot.
The mayor of Caldwell, a saloonkeeper named Michael Meagher, and six other men were arrested on suspicion of the crime, but in the absence of any evidence they were eventually released. Later, Mike Meagher served briefly as town marshal - and, in his turn, was shot down in a gunfight with five cowboys on a spree. The third ill-fated marshal, a young fellow named George Brown, died in the line of duty. Hearing that an armed man had entered the Red Light Dance Hall, he and a constable hurried to the scene to take his guns away. But inside the hall, they found themselves opposed by four men. The inexperienced marshal took them all on. A single bullet brought him down before he could even get his bearings on a target; the constable fled to safety.
Perhaps out of courtesy, Masterson left a number of things unsaid. The peace officers' keen sense of right and wrong did not keep some of them from the pursuit of second careers as practicing outlaws. His description of them as "ordinary men" was probably closer to the mark, for they spent most of their time at such prosaic tasks as paper work and tax-collecting. Yet on numerous occasions they did indeed display valor and skill with a gun, and the men with the badge left a deep and decisive imprint on frontier justice.
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