Bat Masterson – King of the Gunplayers

 By Alfred Henry Lewis in 1907

 

Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson

William Barclay Masterson was born in Iroquois County, Illinois, in 1856. [Actually born on November 26, 1853 in Henryville, Quebec, Canada]. His father was a farmer and came originally from St. Lawrence County, New York. His mother and father still live, and count themselves among the Sedgwick County pioneers of Kansas, with a sunflower residence that reaches rearward half a century.

First a Kansas farm boy, Mr. Masterson was early abroad upon the plains. What is farmland now was savage wilderness then, and those who invaded it did so with a knowledge that their hands must keep their heads. For twenty years, beginning when he was thirteen, Mr. Masterson lived by his own personal powers of offense and defense, and was in more or less daily peril of death from Indians, or from outlaw spirits common enough, these latter, in the West of that hour.

Has Wasted Least Lead of any Man

Just as some folk are born poets, so others are born shots, and Mr. Masterson, from the first, evinced a genius for firearms. With either rifle or pistol he proved himself infallible, and of all who ever plied trigger he has wasted the least lead.

It was as a hunter, he won his name of “Bat,” which descended to him as it were from Baptiste Brown, or “Old Bat,” whose fame as a mighty Nimrod was flung all across, from the Missouri River to the Spanish Peaks, and filled with admiration, that generation of plainsmen which immediately preceded Mr. Masterson upon the Western stage.

For his deadly accuracy with the rifle, Mr. Masterson was early employed to “do the killing”‘ for great hunting outfits, which in the ’70’s ransacked the country between the Arkansas and Canadian [Rivers] for buffalos, in the name of robes and leather. Mr. Masterson would “kill”‘ for a dozen men to skin and cure; and the majestic character of that commerce, wherein he bore his powder-burning part, may be guessed at from the fact that in such years as 1872, more than three hundred thousand buffalo hides, to say naught of one-fourth as many robes, were shipped eastward from the single town of Dodge City.

Crossing and re-crossing the buffalo ranges, Mr. Masterson came naturally by a close knowledge of the country, and, in a region not overstocked of water, could locate every spring and stream, as surely as astronomers locate stars. Thus it befell that General Miles was quick to enlist him as scout, in his campaigns against the Cheyenne in ’74. In truth,  there were more than the Cheyenne engaged in that trouble; for those copper-colored Richards drew with them to the field the flower of the Kiowa, Comanche and Arapaho tribes.

It is to be thought that Mr. Masterson himself was, in half fashion, the partial first victim of that war. The cunning Indians were apparently steeping themselves in peace, with never a notion of warpaths and paleface scalps. They were none the less sedulously, and not always quietly, about the collection of what rifles and pistols and cartridges they could lay red hands upon. Mr. Masterson was one day skinning a buffalo he had killed, when a quintette of Cheyenne bucks rode amiably up. They belonged with old Bear Shield’s band, whose home-camp was on the Medicine Lodge [River.] Mr. Masterson thought little or nothing of the five Cheyenne. They were everyday sights in his life, and the last thing he looked for was trouble. He kept on with his skinning, merely ejaculating “How!” to clear himself of any imputation of impoliteness.

Mr. Masterson’s rifle was lying on the grass — a 50-caliber Sharp’s buffalo gun, for which he had paid eighty dollars. One of the Cheyenne carelessly picked up the rifle, as though to examine it. As he did so, another reached across — Mr. Masterson was bending over the dead buffalo bull, skinning knife in hand — and whipped the six-shooter from the Masterson belt.

At these maneuvers, Mr. Masterson straightened up, and was just in time to receive a confusing blow over the head from his own rifle. The 8-square barrel cut a handsome gash and covered his face with blood. As the Cheyenne struck the blow, he broke into excellent agency English, through which flowed a dominating element of profanity, and commanded Mr. Masterson to “dig out.”

Since the Cheyenne had the muzzle of the rifle not two feet from his stomach, and those four fellow Cheyenne evinced an eagerness to bear a helping hand, Mr. Masterson decided to “dig out.”  That is to say, with blood covering his face, he backed away from the rifle-pointing profane Cheyenne, towards a ravine which yawned conveniently in his rear. Arriving at the brink, Mr. Masterson with hasty strategy fell into that saving canyon, and was out of range in a moment.

Kathy Weiser-Alexander talking about Masterson

Kathy Weiser-Alexander talking about Masterson on the American Heroes Channel

Running along the bottom of the ravine for half a mile, Mr. Masterson reached his own buffalo camp. After a consultation with his two camp mates, the whole party packed their burros, and pointed their noses for Dodge, sixty miles to the north. Mr. Masterson, sore of head from the blow and sore of heart from the loss of his new rifle, was all for following the five Cheyenne and giving them battle. But his comrades, whose unvisited heads were still intact, and whose hearts had been wrung by no rifle losses, overruled him.

They said, “Let’s pull our freight,” and they pulled it.

Mr. Masterson, however, was not to be consoled. That night – Christmas night it was – he rode back, and ran off forty of old Bear Shield’s ponies. These brought him twelve hundred dollars in Dodge, and repaired what monetary losses he had suffered, to say the least. The wounds to his head, and to his honor, permitted his boyish vanity, which those five Cheyenne had inflicted, he cured later at the battle of the Adobe Walls.

It was in the last days of June that the fight at the Adobe Walls occurred. The Adobe Walls consisted of two buildings, one a great outfitting store belonging to Mr. Wright, present head of the Kansas State Historical Society, and the other, Mr. Hanrahan’s saloon. The latter gentleman is now, I think, a member of the Idaho legislature; but, at the time whereof I write, he cheerfully conducted a bar and restaurant, for the comfort of what buffalo hunters worked along the Canadian [River,] two hundred miles south of the last sign of civilization.

Bat Masterson T-Shirt

Bat Masterson T-Shirt

There were fourteen buffalo hunters at the Adobe Walls that night in June. Nine — among them Mr. Masterson — slept in Mr. Hanrahan’s saloon, and five in Mr. Wright’s store. Not one anticipated attack.

Luckily, about three o’clock in the morning, the roof — a dirt roof — of Mr. Hanrahan’s saloon fell in. The sleeping buffalo hunters were forced to turn out. This was all that saved them; otherwise, the prophecy of the Comanche medicine man would have been fulfilled, and the buffalo hunters knocked on the head as they slumbered.

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