Luke Short – A Dandy Gunfighter

By W.R. (Bat) Masterson in 1907

Luke Short

Luke Short

The subject of this narrative might have “died with his boots on,” for he had many chances — but he didn’t. The fact that he lived to die in bed, with his boots removed, as all good folk like to do when the end has come, may have been due to good luck, but I hardly think so. That he was the quickest at the critical moment is, perhaps, the best answer. When the time came for Luke Short to pass out of this life — to render up the ghost as it were-he was able to lie down in bed in a home that was his own, surrounded by wife and friends, and peacefully await the coming of the end.

There was nothing in his wan and drawn features, as he lay on that last bed of sickness at Fort Worth, Texas, to indicate that luck had ever been his friend. He was aware that his time had come, and was reconciled to his fate. Every lineament in that cold, stern face, upon which death had already left its impress, showed defiance. He could almost be heard to say: “Death! You skulking coward! I know you are near; I also realize I cannot defeat you; but, if you will only make yourself visible for one brief moment, I will try!”

That he was willing to try, no matter how great the odds might be against him, was the one trait in his character that was ever conspicuously present.

Was Known as a “White Indian”

Luke was a little fellow, so to speak, about five feet, six inches in height, and weighing in the neighborhood of one hundred and forty pounds. It was a small package, but one of great dynamic force. In this connection, it will not be out of order for me to state that, though of small build, it required a 7 1/8 hat to fit his well-shaped, round head. At the time he left his father’s ranch in western Texas, where he had been occupied as a cowboy in the middle seventies, for the Red Cloud Agency in South Dakota, he was nothing more than a white Indian. That is, he was an Indian in every respect except color. And, as nearly all of our American Indians living west of the Missouri River in those days were both wild and hostile and on the warpath most of the time, a fair idea of Luke Short may be gleaned from this statement. Luke had received none of the advantages of a school in his younger days; he could hardly write his name legibly. It was, indeed, doubtful if he had ever seen a schoolhouse until he reached man’s estate. But he could ride a bronco and throw a lariat; he could shoot both fast and straight and was not afraid.

He had no sooner reached the northern boundary line of Nebraska, hard by the Sioux Indian Reservation, than he established what he was pleased to call a “trading ranch.”

His purpose was to trade with the Sioux Indians, whose reservation was just across the line in South Dakota. Instinctively he knew that the Indians loved whiskey, and as even in those days he carried on his shoulders something of a commercial head, he conceived the idea that a gallon of whiskey worth ninety cents was not a bad thing to trade an Indian for a buffalo robe worth ten dollars. Accordingly, Luke proceeded to lay in a goodly supply of “Pine Top,” the name by which the whiskey traded to the Indians in exchange for their robes was known.

Uncle Sam Objects to His Business

He was not long in building up a lucrative business; nor was it long before the Indian chiefs of the Sioux tribe got on to him. Drunken bands of young bucks were regularly returning to their villages from the direction of the Short rendezvous, loaded to the muzzle with “Pine Top,” and, as every drink contained at least two fights and as it usually took about ten drinks to cause an Indian to forget that the Great White Father abode in Washington, the condition of those who had found entertainment at the Short ranch, when they reached their camp, can better be imagined than told.

The Indian agent in charge of this particular branch of the Sioux tribe, with whom Short had been dealing, soon got busy with Washington. He represented to the Department of the Interior that a band of cutthroat white men, under the leadership of Luke Short, were trading whiskey to his Indians and that he was powerless to stop it, as the camp of the white men was located just across the reservation line, in the State of Nebraska, which was outside of his jurisdiction. He requested the government to instantly remove the whiskey traders and drive them from the country. Otherwise, said he, an Indian uprising will surely follow. The government, as was to be expected, forthwith instructed the post commander at Omaha to get after the purveyors of the poisonous “Pine Top,” who were charged with causing such havoc among the noble red men of the Sioux reservation.

Sioux Tipis

Sioux Tipis, 1902.

The military commander at Omaha soon had a company of United States cavalry after Short, and, as he had no notice of such a move being made against him, he was soon a prisoner in the hands of the government authorities. He was alone in his little dugout, cooking his dinner, when the soldiers arrived. He was told that he was a prisoner, by order of the government, for having unlawfully traded whiskey to the Indians.

“Is that all, gentlemen?” said Luke, as he invited the officer in command of the soldiers to sit down and have a bite to eat with him.

“There will be no time for eating,” said the officer, “as we must reach Sidney by tomorrow morning, in time to catch the Overland train for Omaha. So get together what things you care to take along and we will be on our way.”

“I have nothing that I care to take along,” Luke replied, “excepting what I have on;” and as that mostly consisted of a pair of Colt’s pistols and a belt of cartridges, the officer soon had them in his custody.

“Where are your partners?” queried the Captain.

“I have no partners,” replied Short. “I’ve been running this ranch by myself.”

But Luke did have a partner, who was at that very time in Sidney procuring provisions and more “Pine Top.”

Sidney, Nebraska

Sidney, Nebraska

After everything around the ranch resembling whiskey had been destroyed by order of the officer in command, the trip to Sidney, about 75 miles away, was taken up. Luke was put astride a government horse; his feet fastened with a rope underneath the animal’s girth and told to ride in the center of the company of cavalrymen. Sidney was reached in time to catch the Overland train, and Luke was hustled aboard with as little ceremony as possible.

Luke had, by his quiet and diffident manner during the short time he had been prisoner, succeeded in having the officer regard him in the light of a harmless little adventurer, who really did not seem capable, even if so disposed, of committing a crime of any sort; and for this reason did not have him either handcuffed or shackled, after placing him aboard the train for Omaha.

Sidney, Nebraska, was a very small place in those days. The permanent population in all probability did not exceed the thousand mark. Sidney, following the custom of all small hamlets, however, would turn out when there was anything unusual going on. And the sight of a company of United States soldiers lined up at the railroad station was enough to arouse her curiosity and cause her townsfolk to turn out in a body and investigate the cause. Luke Short’s partner was among those who came to see the big show at the depot, and his surprise can well be imagined when he discovered that no less a person than his partner was responsible for the big event. It did not take Luke and his partner long to fix up a code of signals by which they could communicate with each other. Luke could say a few things in the Indian language that his partner could understand, and to which he could make a comprehensible reply.

Short Escapes from the Soldiers

“Skidoo” and “Twenty-three” were terms familiar to Short, even in those days. But they were conveyed by the sign language instead of being spoken as now.

Luke made his partner understand that he would soon be back in Sidney, and to have everything in readiness, so that they could skip the country with as little delay as possible, as soon as he showed up. The charge of having unlawfully traded whiskey to the Indians did not seem to concern him in the least. “I can beat that sure,” he said to himself; “but supposing that agent should take a notion to call for a count of heads. What then? I know that there are several young bucks, whom I caught trying to steal my ‘Pine Top,’ who will not be there to answer roll-call, in case one is ordered. I planted those bucks myself and, outside of my partner, no one knows the exact location of the cache. While I have no notion of putting in a claim against the government for the work, I must be careful and avoid having it endeavor to show that I really did perform such service.”

These were perhaps the thoughts he was conveying by signals to his partner when he boarded the train at Sidney that was to take him to Omaha.

To state the story briefly, Luke did not tarry long with the soldiers after the train left Sidney. That night found Luke back in town, and before the following morning, both he and his partner were well on their way to Colorado, driving a big span of mules hitched to a canvas-covered wagon.

This happened in the fall of 1878 and, as Leadville was just then having a big mining boom, Luke headed for Denver.

It must be remembered that in that country in those days there were no settlements of any kind and, by keeping from the line of the railroad, a white person was seldom seen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *